The Big One – Phoenix at Madison Square Garden



Photo by Melissa Montes

I am one lucky sonofagun. To quote the great James Murphy, I was there. I was at the Madison Square Garden show when Daft Punk joined Phoenix onstage. What’s more, I want you to go there with me. So let’s do this – let’s relive that night, put you right up against the gate with me, and party down.

Happily, my friend and AWM’s current photographer Melissa Montes is the same kind of Phoenix nut that I am – in fact, we met at a Phoenix show just about a year ago. So when it was suggested that we head to Madison Square Garden at 3 p.m., four hours before doors, five before the first opener and almost seven before Phoenix took the stage, we were all in.

Madison Square Garden is a giant venue, as you may have guessed. It’s housed near Penn Station, and it is just this behemoth monster of a tub that seems threatening from the outside, with its sandy, concrete, crazy-high walls. We stopped in at the ticket line to see if our friend and incredible photographer Pooneh Ghana was going to be able to use her CMJ photo badge to shoot the show, but alas, no dice, and Pooneh later headed off to cover other festival festivities.

We rounded the corner of the venue and came upon the tour buses and an already-formed line, which we quickly discovered was our general admission line. There were only about ten people as crazy as we were who were already lined up, so we sauntered up and sat down to wait. The evening of the Phoenix show was probably the coldest day of the entire CMJ week, so we huddled and tried to ignore how chilly the sidewalk was as the time passed. Luckily, when you camp out for a show with friends, time can go by pretty fast, and we anxiously chattered about songs we wanted to hear, past Phoenix live experiences, and how early the first guy in line got there (he arrived at noon – kudos). There’s also the issue of bathroom usage when you’re camping out for hours, but luckily, there’s a Borders near the ticketing entrance of the front building of MSG, and so we took turns going to the second floor and waiting in an endless line there because there are only 2 stalls for some evil reason. Still, everyone remained comfortable save for the cold, which is always a plus.

At one point, security guards came to create a space for people wanting to go into the MSG restaurant for fancy steak dinners, which ended up breaking the line and putting Melissa and me in the very front of the second section of gates. We stood for a while to warm our bodies, and suddenly, Melissa jumped and said “ohmygod” like she’d seen a ghost. I asked her “What?” but she was already mentally gone, so I looked around until I spotted one Sofia Coppola with her adorable scooter-toting daughter, rushing around and looking a little distraught and distracted. Thus, Melissa and I passed on jumping out to bother her. But later that evening, after Melissa and I were safely inside the venue, Pooneh managed to chat Ms. Coppola up about film cameras and snapped a fantastic Polaroid of her. Honestly, to even be within the same radius as Sofia Coppola was pretty mind boggling.

After our first celebrity sighting of the night, Melissa and I were pumped and ready to rock. My adrenaline was running so quickly, in fact, that I happily chatted it up when a tiny film crew (read: one dude hoisting a camera and a woman asking questions and holding a furry mic) stopped by our section of the line to ask us questions about who we were and why we were there. It went something like this:

Interviewer: Hi, can you tell me where you are right now?

Me: We’re at Madison Square Garden.

I: And who are you here to see?

M: Oh, we’re here to see Phoenix!

I: Why are you here to see them?

M: Deep inhale followed by breathless speed-talking, saying something like the following – Ohmaigosh we just love them, I’m here with my friend Melissa (gestures as Melissa tries to step further away out of the frame) and we met at a Phoenix show about a year ago and so this is kind of our way of celebrating our friendship and we’re just so happy to be here and we came all the way from Austin, Texas because well really I mean we just love Phoenix so freaking much!

I: And why do you like Phoenix? What about their music do you like?

M: Well I mean, I love how you can interpret it, and that it’s fun to dance to and emotional and it just can get you on a gut level, and their performances are so energetic and they’re all just so amazing! Note: I am a writer and not a speaker for a reason. Clearly when put on the spot, words come at a level akin to an excitable eleven-year-old’s.

I: And what is your name?

M: My name is Caitlin (hesitation) Wittlif.

Melissa, finally: And I’m Melissa Montes.

I: Great, thank you so much!

The pair walked off to film some other folks, and I excitedly (read: loudly) mused to Melissa that we might end up in some kind of Phoenix documentary, since the pair were wearing official Phoenix tags on their clothes. I worried that I sounded a little too frantic and crazed, but mostly enjoyed my small stint of fame … and then the interviewing pair returned with a request.

I: So will you do something for us – will you sing us a song?

Faces turn red, Melissa tries to push even further away from this situation and just keeps repeating the word “no” quietly to me over and over again. Me: Uhm, well – I mean I’ll do it if you do it, Melissa! Why not, why not, come on, let’s do this. Can we do “Rome”? Come on, Melissa, sing “Rome” with me! I can’t do it by myself, c’mon, pleasepleaseplease.

Melissa broke down and suddenly we were singing “Rome” to each other (which, by the way, was the WORST song decision of all the songs we could have picked of Phoenix’s apart from maybe “Funky Squaredance”) and it was kind of embarrassing and incredible all at the same time. We stopped after a few lines, and the interviewers once again thanked us and headed off with what is probably some awfully incriminating footage.

Happily, that ate up quite a bit of time, and after meeting new friend and Brooklyn Vegan photographer Andrew St. Clair, being his photo subjects, and waving a sad goodbye to Pooneh, it was time to move. The first section of the line started moving inside, and there was a quick shiver of panic as we were stuck in the second section, waiting for the guards to unleash us and let us head in after the first ten people. When we were released, we walked briskly into the front, where guards checked our bags and IDs, and then we walked up our first flight of stairs where, halfway up, someone scanned tickets. Since I bought mine secondarily, I was a little more than anxious to hear that comforting “blippp!” of the scanner, and when it came I knew I was in and everything seemed a little more real. I raced after Melissa up the stairs and around some corners through hallways until we made it to … a second line. They held us in another gated area, waiting for the official door time. Those few minutes before the doors swung open felt longer than all three-plus hours we chilled (literally) outside, and Melissa became quiet as my heart pounded louder and louder in my chest. Finally, the doors were unlocked, and we first few attendees spilled through as people took off running. I can’t remember how many flights of stairs we climbed, how many vendors we passed, or how many guards yelled at all of us to slow down, but suddenly I burst through the true front of the arena and I screamed at Melissa and, really, at no one in particular, overwhelmed by this giant dome of fantasticness. Still speed-walking, Melissa and I aimed for our pre-planned area – up against the gate, just left of center so we’d be in front of Bronco. We had made it, and when we were finally pinned to the wall, we laughed and turned around to really take in this monster that would be our home for the next few hours. Rows of seats seem to sprout out of one another endlessly, and the dome ceiling gives you the feeling you really are in the belly of the beast.

Photo by Melissa Montes

Melissa escaped briefly to purchase a bottle of water for me (five dollars. Ouch.) and a beer for herself (eight!), and then we waited in the cold Garden air for Wavves. The trio came out on time at 8 p.m., looking a little grungy and, underneath their “don’t-give-a-fuck” exterior, a little bewildered at where they were about to perform. Though founder and lead growler Nathan Williams might be the face of Wavves, guitarist Stephen Pope was the most visible this night, with his damaged, insane-clown orange tuft of hair that floated around as he thrashed his head to the music. Wavves’ set was very short; they packed about eight lo-fi, garagey tunes into a 20-minute set, which was enough to pass the time a little more quickly, but before the group overstayed their welcome. Near the end of the set, Nathan quipped, “Thanks again for coming out – it’s nice to play for all 14 of you.” There were certainly more than 14 folks in attendance, but the Wavves singer was right in alluding to the fairly-empty venue; there was still a lot of standing room open in our GA section, and tons of empty seats scattered around.

Photo by Melissa Montes

Photo by Melissa Montes

Time passed more quickly between sets as the staging was changed, instruments were sound checked, people continued to mill in and fill the seat gaps, and photographers chatted in the photo pit in front of us. When the Dirty Projectors took the stage, there seemed to be more crowd excitement than there was for Wavves, and the ensemble started into their first rhythmic, bouncy song right away. Admittedly, it’s taken me a while to understand the Dirty Projectors; in fact, I probably wouldn’t have even considered myself a fan before seeing them live. But they blew me away with their performance; it was intense, with visible sound waves coming from the deep bass booming out of the speakers and shaking my guts around in my body. The songs I recognized included “Bitte Orca,” “Stillness is the Move,” and a tune from their whale EP, Mount Wittenberg Orca, with Bjork (although, sadly, the Icelandic-cum-Brooklynite was nowhere to be found). My attention often shifted between the three female vocalists, trying to place where specific tones were coming from but often failing because these women are very, very skilled singers. Drummer Brian Mcomber is also a joy to watch, because his face tells the story of how intensely he is focusing on the task at hand, and he bounces slightly as he plays. Of course, David Longstreth is the David Byrne of the whole equation, leading his orchestra of experimentals. One of the most vivid images I have of the group’s performance is when, in between songs, Longstreth downed an entire bottle of water – it was like a separate act of the show, almost like he wanted us all to observe him, eyes glued to the bottle as the water quickly disappeared.

Photo by Melissa Montes

When DP left the stage, there was only time standing between us and our beloved French pop-rockers. We were chatting with BV photog Andrew about how the crowd was finally filling out, and wondered out loud about what opening acts would have brought in more people. I turned to Melissa and said, “What about a Phoenix/Daft Punk co-headlining set, with Justice opening?” She vehemently said, “Nonono, my brain would seriously explode. It’s too much. No way, no way. It’ll never happen.” I shrugged and said, “Yeah, you’re right. But how epic would it be?” We watched as Phoenix’s crew set up all their gear, and shouted to Cedric, the straw hat-toting roadie who, along with roadie Minimas, knew Melissa from all of her travels to see the band. He turned and waved at us, giving us a “What the hell are you doing HERE now?” grin, but not really seeming that surprised.

I don’t know how long we stood their, shaking in our shoes, chattering anxiously and jumping up and down every once in a while. All I know is, when the lights finally went out, nothing else mattered. We were here, somehow, and it was now, and there they were, our Phoenix gents, ready to play THE show.

Of course they kicked it off with “Lisztomania;” they always have at every show we’ve seen them play this year. It easily filled the arena, and the screaming and sing-alongs never stopped as the lights flashed and the bass seemed to go even deeper than during DP’s set. Sporadically I’d grab at Melissa’s arm, trying to ground myself in the moment and not get too lost in the dream-state of it all. It was especially surreal to have that mass of people screaming along to a song about riot-inducing fanaticism; I was about my wits enough to reflect briefly on the irony. But then I joined the mess.

“Lasso” is always the tune that lets Thomas get a little closer to the audience, so when they brought it out second, it was clear that he was eager to get near us and try to really grasp just how many folks had come to see his band play that night. He leapt right next to us, and I felt my body squish tightly against the gate as who-knows-how-many fans tried to get just one finger on Mars. He sang to us, with just a pinch of panic in his eyes as hands grabbed his shirt, patted his back and pulled him closer. I was content just to watch him and sing along with him, and he gave a big smile before he finally pulled away and hopped back onstage.

Two adorable girls standing next to me with personalized Phoenix tees had been crossing their fingers for “Long Distance Call,” and I promised them before the show started that it was a live staple. The band brought it out third, and it seemed to get people more excited than either of the Wolfgang tracks that came before. I am pretty certain that it was at the end of this song when Thomas grinned like a little boy, gestured for the house lights, and stood, arms crossed around his body so he was hugging himself as we all screamed, applauded, whistled, jumped, fist-pumped and nodded in adoration. Branco, Deck and Christian stood around sheepishly in disbelief, and then they launched into “Fences.”

Phoenix light shows are impressively representative of the music they make; they fit the sexy, big city-evoking electronica-pop vibe well, as they flash in all different colors, stripe across the faces of the band and audience, and generally get everybody in the mood to move their hips. “Girlfriend” definitely acted as a dancey jam that night, and Thomas’ voice was dead on for the lovely tune.

“Armistice” is one of the darker Phoenix songs, both musically and lyrically, and the bassline was increasingly noticeable as we all jumped up and down in unison with the song. Thomas laid down at the end of it, signaling that it was time for “Love Like a Sunset,” but the band surprised us instead with “North,” the instrumental off of their third album, It’s Never Been Like That. They transitioned easily from that song into “Sunset,” allowing all of the players to flex their instrumental muscles. Christian and Branco hammed it up for their guitar war that occurs right before the crescendo to the climax of the song, and the audience loved them for it, showering the brothers with applause. Finally, as the pace quickened and the song became overwhelming, Thomas picked his head up off of the speaker he’d been resting on, stood up and delivered the title verse. At the end of the song, a sharp drum hit that sounded like an exploding cannon signaled a white canvas to drop down from the ceiling. It fell into the audience, covering those of us in the first ten or fifteen GA standing rows, and we shrugged, thinking this was some dramatic effect to go along with everything. The canvas “surfed” the crowd, as members pulled it back to the back. At this point, something seemed amiss, as band members looked on in confused awe, and Minimas was seen sprinting to the front of the stage. I turned to Melissa and we frowned, not sure exactly what was happening. We looked up, and could see that the canvas was attached to a chained walkway hanging from the ceiling, and because people were pulling the canvas, the walkway was swaying with increasing severity. For a moment, I actually wondered, “If the rafter falls and kills me, would that be such a bad thing? To go out at this incredible Phoenix show?” But then I thought, “Wait! They aren’t done playing!” and was a little concerned for all of us standing around in the front. Luckily, the crafty devils in the back of GA were able to  disconnect the canvas from the walkway and pull it all the way down. Minimas looked incredibly angry, which makes me think the effect was supposed to have the canvas falling straight down, hiding the band momentarily as they readied the next song. Once everything stopped swaying and everyone got themselves together again, the show continued without comment on the canvas-falling event.

“Run Run Run” is a super sexy song that gets a little more aggressive when the band plays it live, so it was a great mood changer after the sweetness of “Sunset.” Thomas screamed his lines at the end of the tune, and threw his mic viciously to the ground to end the song. The atmosphere changed again when “Rally” came up next; for some reason, this was the one that seemed to get Melissa and me the most from the opening set, as we sang our favorite line together: “Standing in line, I think you’re pretty/Lying on your bed, I think you’re pretty, too/Young girl, curl your hair at night/Hook up with me, meet me at the rally.” It’s a youthful song that seemed to hit at just the right moment, as the excitement was close to peaking. What’s more, Melissa’s special song (and our duet at the beginning of the evening), “Rome,” was next. This is Melissa’s song because, the first time she ever met Phoenix, she was standing outside of La Zona Rosa (at the show where we met) and smoking a cigarette. The band came out and she shared with them, literally living out the line, “We shared a cigarette somewhere.” Every time I hear the song now, I think of her, our friendship, and our various Phoenix adventures around the country. We mustered all of our energy jumping at the end of the song, as the lights flashed and the synth boomed.

For the closing song of the opening set, the band pulled out their United live staple, “Funky Squaredance.” On record, this nine-minute opus starts out a little jazzier, and only gets into dark synth-pop territory near the end. Live, the band tends to cut to the darkness, and they literally did that, with only Thomas illuminated by streaks of light from all sides of the stage as he used a voice manipulator on his mic to sound like a crazed demon robot. I think I was pulling the hair out of my head at this point from excitement, disbelief and being overcome by the rock. The crowd jammed out as the guitars ripped through the night, and even the crazy air conditioning couldn’t keep the sweat from pouring. The band knew how to play with our emotions; we were at the height of our devotion, and when they left the stage, there was a constant hum of noise as the now-full room of bodies begged them to return.

After about ten minutes, Thomas’ voice could suddenly be heard soaring from the speakers, though the band was not onstage. Everyone turned to their neighbor, shrugging and trying to figure out where exactly everybody was. We finally found Thomas, Branco, Christian and Deck on a raised area near the back of the GA floor, and they serenaded us with “Love for Granted.” It was beautiful and heartbreaking, and Melissa said it was the first time she cried that night. I swayed gently, eyes closed, and tried to soak in every syllable. The group continued down the acoustic road, as they tried out what Thomas called a “traditional French song” that I’d seen them perform at other shows via YouTube. Melissa and I have been learning French together, so I tried to sort out as much of the meaning as I could (although I can basically just tell you that the boy eats and that I’m a woman at this point). When the last chords were strummed, the crowd erupted in applause, and touring band members Thomas and Robin started in on the next song’s drum and piano parts, laying them down like a red carpet for the band to follow back up to the stage.

“If I Ever Feel Better” kicked in as soon as the guys were once again settled, evoking happy shrieks from the Lost In Translation fans in the crowd. We all grooved along, singing all the words as the band jammed out. What happened next is some kind of dream-blur that brings me close to tears just thinking about it.

As the band turned “If I Ever Feel Better” back into “Funky Squaredance,” Thomas asked for house lights. He climbed a tall speaker over on stage right, by where we were standing, and shouted for everyone to raise their hands and jump. Then, seconds later, as he was climbing down from the speaker, the lights cut out and only a gritty, mechanical hum that sounded like we were standing right next to a jet engine preparing for takeoff accompanied the black. Our eyes adjusted fairly quickly, and we looked at the band members, who stared intently at our faces. Suddenly, I heard Melissa scream in a way I’d never heard before, and I turned to her to see that her face had this expression like the end of the world was nigh. I quickly snapped my head in the direction that seemed to have zombiefied her, and that’s when this otherworldly voice gasped out of my body. All I could scream was “Ohmygod, ohmygod” over and over as tears filled my eyes and I held Melissa, the fence, myself, anything that could ensure that this was happening. Slowly rising above a booth at stage left were none other than men-of-mystery and aforementioned “never gonna happen” dream collaborators Daft Punk. I swear I felt like I could finally commiserate with the young girls who lost it for the Beatles back in the day – I couldn’t see straight, I couldn’t stop screaming, I couldn’t feel my legs. All I could think was “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!” as the tears streamed down and I put my hand to my mouth. At that moment, I turned my head in time to catch Thomas looking at Melissa and me freaking out, and he grinned really big and gently shook his head, eating up our madness. When that beautiful computerized voice started pumping out of the speakers, groaning, “Harder, better, faster, stronger,” it was all over. It was like some insane drug-induced coma, like we had fallen down the rabbit hole. The two French phenoms mashed up “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” with “If I Ever Feel Better,” and then threw in some “Around the World” for good measure, as we pumped our fists and kept shaking our heads. Hysteria has never felt more intoxicating than it did for me that night.

When the song finally finished, we clapped and shouted loudly for both bands, and sort of stood wondering what was next; would Daft Punk remain onstage for the imminent closing act of “1901”? What would they mash it up with? How was this all gonna go down? The band answered quickly as they dove into “1901,” and Daft Punk added some awesome wailing voices and computerized buzzes. They went through the tune quickly, just barreled right along, and Thomas joined our side of the stage again and sang right to us for a while, which you can see in Melissa’s video recap of the whole shebang (check that out here.) He yelled “Thank you” at the close of the song, and then as band members milled around, it became apparent it wasn’t over just yet. Christian began to play a picky guitar lick that sounded familiar, and when the stage lights began to match its pace, the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme was recognizable. Daft Punk, of course, supplied the alien response, and for that, pieces of the dome ceiling lit up and transported all of us to some unearthly place. As the song began to pick up speed, Thomas’ iconic glowing neon-orange mic cord was seen unraveling as the lead singer sprinted off to the side of the crowd and into the seated area on the audience’s left. “1901” kicked back in as Thomas said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” on nearly endless repeat. The band extended the jam, and Thomas somehow wound up in the middle of the masses, crowd surfing his way back to the stage as eager hands reached to help him, to ruffle his hair, and to generally try to rub some of his awesome off on them. He managed to get back to the front where Cedric was waiting to help him over the gate, and then he stood for a moment, dazed. When he finally climbed back onstage, he once again threw his mic to the ground over and over, perhaps letting off a little of the crazy adrenaline that was surely rushing through him. When the band finally finished the song in a glorious cacophony of sound, they all came to the front of the stage for a linked-bodies bow, including Daft Punk, who looked from their body language to be fairly pleased with the whole ordeal.

Photo by Melissa Montes

Melissa and I stumbled out of the venue singing songs, asking each other if it really happened, saying “Ohmygod Daft Punk” over and over with various expletives sprinkled in for emphasis, and basically just couldn’t stop grinning the rest of the night into the following day. As we were waiting outside for Pooneh to rejoin us, we spotted members of Jamaica and the Beastie Boys emerging from the venue, but everything was so surreal at that point that it just seemed to pile on. We did see our French interviewers again, and Melissa finally went up and asked them what, exactly, our footage would be used for. Turns out, we’ll be used on French TV; they were working on a program about how French culture is effecting other parts of the world. So you’re welcome, French people, for the song we sang for you. Please don’t laugh at us too hard.

I have trouble ranking favorite shows, because comparing different bands can be very apples-to-oranges, plus the crowd and my own individual mood ends up changing my experience. That said, this show was a dream. It was a total dream, with billowy fog and neon flashing lights to match, and it was so nice to share in such a memorable moment for this band. Phoenix is a group that loves their fans, and they treat us right at live shows every single time. All there really is left to say is to quote Thomas: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Photo by Melissa Montes

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