review by Michael McCarthy
photos by Mary Ouellette / @mythamareica
Last Thursday night on 9/19/19, I was fortunate to catch Phantom Planet live at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, otherwise known as Boston’s sister city.
The tour is Phantom Planet’s first in over 10 years, as the band recently reformed after a decade’s long hiatus; technically, they’d never officially broken up. Aside from touring, the band recently released the infectious, up-tempo, pop-rock song, “Party Animal,” which was a song of the day on our site.
Before the show, I spent some time examining the audience. You could see that many people were true fans and very much excited while others looked a bit skeptical, perhaps wondering if the Phantom would still have its magic after all these years. Then there were the younger fans who were likely in their early 20s, who’d probably never heard much of the band’s music before but decided to catch the show to see what all of the buzz was about. Maybe others’ parents listened to Phantom Planet when they were growing up and they feel nostalgic when they hear them and that drove them to the show. I overheard two groups of people who looked like they were in their 30s waxing nostalgic about other Phantom Planet shows they’d caught over the years. Of course, I’m sure there were people with plenty of other reasons, too.
As the show began, frontman/guitarist Alex Greenwald came out onto the stage solo and started playing. The rest of the band joined him less than a minute later and delivered the first few songs, “By The Bed,” “Always On My Mind,” and “1st Things 1st,” all of which found the guys performing like a well oiled-machine with all its parts operating at full capacity. “Thank you so much for remembering us,” Greenwald said when he finally took a moment to talk to the packed house.
Next up was a ferocious rendition of their popular “Balisong,” which kicked so much ass that you might’ve mistaken them for a heavy metal band. In fact, it was so good that I dare say the version they released pales a little by comparison. I say that because Greenwald and Darren Robinson’s guitars are slightly buried behind the beat on the released version whereas they were nice and loud, dominating the sound, in concert. To that end, I hope the band releases a live album from this tour after the new studio album they’re working on for release early next year comes out and does its thing. Or perhaps they’ll release a live version of “Balisong” as a B-side for one of their upcoming singles?
When the band performed the ballad “Turn Smile Shift Repeat,” bassist Sam Farrar, who’s also in Maroon 5, operated some sort of sampler to make a cute, computerized voice say each word from the title. Greenwald explained, “This is our first time playing with a computerized thing.” The fun part was when he had the audience sing along to the computerized voice. It was an interesting choice for them to do this with because it’s a somber and even somewhat eerie song on The Guest, the album it’s from. Later, they performed the song “Dropped,” an audience request, to an electronic beat throughout, giving it a vibe similar to the songs on Def Leppard’s masterpiece Hysteria.
During “Do The Panic,” Greenwald again called for audience participation, having half the club sing “Ba” and the other half sing “Ba Ba.” Having us do that while the band did the chorus sounded quite nice. Although I suppose that sounds ridiculous to anyone who isn’t familiar with the song, which contains that part throughout much of it.
Following “Do The Panic,” Greenwald had the crowd help choose what song they should do next for the second time that night. He offered us, “The Local Black And Red,” “The Guest” and “Lonely Day.” The audience picked by screaming for each song, the one getting the loudest reaction being the winner. However, it was more or less a tie between “The Local Black And Red” and “Lonely Day,” so Greenwald said, “Let’s do ‘Lonely Day’,” which happened to be the track I was shouting for. As the band performed the mid-tempo ballad, the audience sang along, especially during the chorus, without having to be asked.
During “Knowitall,” the band again sounded heavy enough to be considered hard rock if not metal, and the crowd lapped it up. Before performing it, Greenwald said, “This one is about a blind date,” and remarked that his, “Second went worse than the first, but this isn’t Behind the Music.”
The previously mentioned new song “Party Animal” had the audience just as excited as the classics. Everyone sang the repetitious chorus and danced their asses off to drummer Jeff Conrad’s mighty potent – and sonorous – beats. Was I not disabled, I would’ve been jumping up and down during the chorus, which more or less demands it. To that end, I saw plenty of people doing just that.
While I was watching the band play, I tried to figure out what other artists I’d compare them to when describing their sound for listeners who weren’t familiar with them. The best that I could come up with is that they have the killer choruses and fun vibe of OK GO and a touch of Interpol’s gusto and general style of playing. Or maybe that’s not right at all. I’m posting some of their songs along with this review so you can listen and draw your own conclusions.
The last song before the encore required the audience to pick again. Our choices were, “Dear Dead End,” “I Don’t Mind,” and “The Galleria.” “I Don’t Mind” clearly had fewer people screaming, but “Dear Dead End” and “The Galleria,” were tied. So, we had to scream again to break it. “Dear Dead End” won and Greenwald remarked, “It’s our Dear John letter.” I wasn’t familiar with the track, so it might have been new. Either way, it was a lovely song and I enjoyed it just fine even though my screaming had gone to “The Galleria,” which I’m admittedly fond of because it’s about a mall in the Los Angeles area and I lived out there for a few years a long time ago.
The band wasn’t gone from the stage very long before the encore, the first song of which was the band’s arguably most popular song, “California,” which everyone in the house knew all the words to and sang along with the sort of enthusiasm you see during “Livin’ On A Prayer” at a Bon Jovi concert. Sheer joy.
The second and final encore song was “Big Brat,” during which Greenwald walked across the audience, who almost dropped him once, and climbed up onto the balcony, finishing the show from up there. Like the entire show, it was quite the accomplishment!
Finally, I have to write a few words about Micky James, who opened the show and was phenomenal. From the moment he walked out across stage in his pink suit with bell-bottoms, standing tall and thin with a haircut that frames his charismatic face perfectly, I knew this guy was a rock star. I felt like I was looking at the next David Bowie or Freddie Mercury. Then he played his first song, “Tie Me Up,” and I couldn’t have been more impressed. He actually sounded like a cross between Bowie and Mercury, yet totally fresh and exciting as well. During his second song, the catchy as poison ivy “Cry Baby,” I couldn’t help but notice how incredible his band is. These guys were firing on all cylinders. I especially loved the drum sound, which was bass-heavy, giving the songs stomping beats that moved you. Near the end of “Cry Baby,” James suddenly stood motionless, showing his theatricality. It really worked for him, as he held the audience in the palm of his hand. And we sure wanted more. “You guys are so cool, man. Badass people,” he said to us. Before playing a killer song called “Won’t Walk The Line,” he explained that it’s, “about being yourself and not letting anyone tell you otherwise.” Just the thing you’d expect a veritable rock star to say.