Playing new material in concert can be risky, especially when you’re an established band and nobody in the crowd has heard the new songs. Grammy-winning French electro-rockers Phoenix took that risk during their U.S. tour opener at the Paramount Theatre and ended up with mixed results.
Forgive the pun, but the Coachella headliners went for broke by playing nearly all of the 10 songs off their upcoming fifth studio record “Bankrupt!” during their 90-minute set. The record is scheduled to be released April 23 and most of the new material makes an artistic left turn away from the cheery synth-pop tunes that became rock radio staples after Phoenix’s Grammy win in the Best Alternative Album category in 2009. A lot of the songs on “Bankrupt!” veer into louder, darker territory and judging from the band’s live show anyone expecting “Bankrupt!” to be a record that sounds similar to “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” the album that netted the band its Grammy, will be disappointed. This seemed to puzzle some in the crowd who were expecting the new songs to be more upbeat and dance-friendly. Take for example “Chloroform,” which is carried by a very heavy, grinding synthesized bass line. The bass immediately gets your attention, making it a musically gripping song, but it didn’t fit too well alongside poppier and more well-known numbers like “Lasso” and “Fences.” But despite the darker tones of the new songs, Phoenix is still a lively and fun act in concert.
The set started with a rambunctious take on “Entertainment,” the lead single off the new record, during which singer Thomas Mars playfully twirled around and danced in circle. That was followed by “Lisztomania.” Having a hit like “Lisztomania” so early in the setlist was an early indicator the new material would be plentiful and so it was. From there several more new songs were thrown into the mix and fortunately for Phoenix not all of the new material takes on a darker edge. “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” featuring the catchy chorus of “And you can’t cross the line/But you can’t stop trying/Alone, alone, alone,” is one of the more upbeat new songs out of the nine that were performed. While everyone in attendance was hearing it for the first time, it didn’t stop the capacity crowd from dancing. It was one of the more well-received new songs and served as a refreshing electro-pop refuge early in the set.
The one-two punch of the relatively reserved songs “Trying to be Cool” and “Oblique City” felt more indicative of what “Bankrupt” has to offer. The chilled-out vibe of both songs had a nice retro sound and seemed to follow the trend of revisiting and updating styles from the ’80s as started by their contemporaries in the Strokes, the Killers and other bands. Earlier a nearly 10-minute mostly instrumental melding of “Love Like a Sunset” and the title track off “Bankrupt” sounded like it would have easily fit in on the soundtrack to “Tron” as done by their good pals Daft Punk. It was a clever way to expose the crowd to a new song while giving it something familiar to enjoy too.
Throughout the show there were times when Mars’ vocals weren’t high enough in the mix and when Deck d’Arcy’s body-shaking bass tones were so loud and deep it almost made things physically uncomfortable (expect the bass on new record to be a speaker-shaker), but those sorts of hiccups are expected on the first night of a tour. The heavy presence of new songs was somewhat jarring considering the show took place weeks before the street date for “Bankrupt” but by the end of the night Phoenix successfully pulled off the risky move of not upsetting a crowd of adoring fans by force-feeding them new songs. When Mars jumped into the crowd and sang while standing on top of their hands for main set closed with “1901″ it felt like he was thanking fans for allowing Phoenix to indulge in the new material. It was a nice way for the band to let the crowd know Phoenix haven’t forgotten their past but they’re keeping their focus set on their future.