Phoenix/Passion Pit | 09.26 | NY

Words by: Dan Ettinger | Images from:

Phoenix & Passion Pit :: 09.26.09 :: Central Park SummerStage :: New York, NY

Perhaps it was the magic of an early fall night in the Big Apple, or the mysticism of Central Park, or the intimate, wooded enclave offered by the Central Park SummerStage, or the fact that Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars has a child with Sofia Coppola that had me thinking about the themes in Lost in Translation. Coppola's movie is so human, in that it portrays a confused and alienated Bill Murray and a vulnerable Scarlett Johansson struggling to identify with their loneliness. The film suggests that some of us consistently experience a sort of existential ennui that can only be overcome through personal connections.

Having recently started a new job in a new city (unfortunately NOT New York City), I was trying to forget any alienation or loneliness that was going on in my own life and enjoy the second night of Phoenix and Passion Pit's recent sold out shows. With some tickets selling on StubHub for upwards of $300, I was curious to see whether or not the two bands could live up to the accruing hype.

The Emerson graduates that comprise Passion Pit are a classic example of social networking wildfire. Just two years young, the group skyrocketed to success on the heels of lead singer-songwriter Michael Angelakos' Valentine's Day present-turned-2008-EP Chunk of Change. After cracking a few obligatory Red Sox/Yankees jokes that can accompany any musical group from Boston playing in New York, Pit proceeded to wind through their frenetic, poppy, and concise songs with notable joy.

Laurent Brancowitz - Phoenix
As the area continued to fill with eager Phoenix fans, Passion Pit burst into their gem of the night, "Moth's Wings" > "Sleepyhead," which highlighted the band's incredibly hectic breakdowns, their impressive handle on indie-pop-snyth rock sound, and most of all, Angelakos' helium-balloon falsetto. Closing with "The Reeling," the group posed an introspective question to the young crowd that seemed especially pertinent considering my earlier Lost in Translation musings: "Look at me, oh look at me/ Is this the way I'll always be/ Now I pray that somebody will quickly come and kidnap me/ Everyday I lie awake and pray to God today's the day/ Here I am, here I am/ When will someone understand?"

Before I had too much time to get carried away with any sort of metaphysical inner dialogue, Phoenix had already quietly ascended to the stage; their backdrop was a simple banner of the Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix bomb shaped artwork. The band that has recently appeared on Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a Cadillac commercial, The Late Show with David Letterman, and most recently The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien had plenty of reasons to be cocky. But for such widespread recent recognition, their stage presence was humble and Mars warmly thanked the audience multiple times both in English and in French for making it to the show. They were impressive in their ability to connect with the crowd and draw in any doubters.

Any skeptics listening to the recorded versions of these songs and wondering how they would translate live would be blown away. In fact, one of the most enjoyable and surprising elements about Phoenix's set was how flawlessly they integrated their well rehearsed, in-studio tightness with the necessary expansion that accompanies any talented band's live show. There were moments where I wasn't sure if I was seeing some sort of Radiohead/Animal Collective/Pink Floyd prototype; their lengthier songs such as "Love Like a Sunset" and "Funky Squaredance" possessed the intensity of Thom Yorke and co., the ambience of Animal Collective, and the "x-factor" that so often accompanied Floyd's jams (think "Have a Cigar," but without as many shearing Gilmour solos).

Powered by Mars' smooth vocal delivery and Thomas Hedlund's acrobatic drumming, Phoenix was energetic to say the least. A well-orchestrated light show deftly accented everything from the band's lightest, sauntering tunes ("If I Ever Feel Better" and "Girlfriend") to their dance party, Daft Punk-like electronica influenced ("Rome" and "1901") moments during the hour and a half set.

Another notable moment - which fully convinced me Phoenix is ready for superstardom - came when Mars and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz played the first two songs of the encore acoustic, including a conglomerate of spotlights focused on the lead singer's head that created a halo effect.

As the last notes of "1901" resonated into the City that Never Sleeps, I was again drawn back to those aforementioned Lost in Translation themes. Roger Ebert described the film in his 2003 Chicago Sun-Times article as "sweet and sad at the same time as it is sardonic and funny." These comparisons can just as easily apply to many of Phoenix's songs, which can be lyrically introspective and melancholy, yet musically vibrant. Just as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson found a little solace in each other, Phoenix seemed to offer solace that everything really will work out because it's all predetermined anyways: "Past and present they don't matter... Now the future's sorted out."

Isn't that escape and distraction music offers part of its inherent beauty?

Passion Pit Setlist:
I've Got Your Number, Eyes As Candles, Make Light, Let Your Love Grow Tall, Little Secrets, To Kingdom Come, Folds In Your Hands, Moth's Wings > Sleepyhead, Smile Upon Me, Better Things, The Reeling

Phoenix Setlist:
Lisztomania, Long Distance Call, Lasso, Run Run Run, Fences, Girlfriend, Armistice, Love Like a Sunset, Too Young, Rally Consolation Prizes, Rome >Funky Squaredance >Rome
E: Everything is Everything (acoustic; Thomas and Laurent), Playground Love (acoustic; Thomas and Laurent), If I Ever Feel Better, 1901

Phoenix is on tour now; dates available here.

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[Published on: 10/7/09]

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