A friend had a question for me right before Phoenix took the stage last night at Cornell University. The show was sold out for a few weeks and we were packed tightly about 40 rows deep from the stage – this despite getting to the show 45 minutes early.
“So, you think they’re the most relevant rock band in the world?”
If this concert happened three years ago, Phoenix probably wouldn’t have sold out a venue anywhere in Central New York even one-tenth of the size. In fact, their show last night spoke volumes about how the French band has transformed since 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the breakthrough pop hit that buoyed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. They went from sound-tracking relatively obscure movies and TV shows to selling out Madison Square Garden. But it's still cool to root for Phoenix (as opposed to other bands going through similar growth periods, like Kings of Leon) because they've only gotten better with success.
In Cornell's Barton Hall on Sunday night, the band entered the stage humbly, simply walking out with the lights on and their hands raised. But when the first riff of “Lisztomania” began, a lightshow fit for international stadiums began and the crowd launched into a state of bedlam that would continue for the next hour and a half. A constant sea of cameras hung in the air no matter what track was played, and 5,000 fans magnified lead singer Thomas Mars’ vocals anytime he sang a song off Wolfgang Amadeus.
Phoenix is new to this popularity, but it appears seasoned and genuine on stage. They played their massive hits – "1901," "Lasso" – but rewarded longtime fans with older numbers from their catalogue (think “Run Run Run,” off their second album Alphabetical).
At this point, Phoenix has an audience so in tune with the event that they can get away with just about anything on-stage. During Saturday's set, they served up alternative versions of their major hits, covered the stage with a screen to play an instrumental number, and honored Air, one of their French inspirations, by encoring with a stripped-down cover of “Playground Love.”
The crowd cheered every nuance like fans at a Radiohead or U2 show. But in comparison to Phoenix, what have those bands done for fans lately (and are they even relevant rock bands at this point)? Coldplay may be a strong act, but do they have the mass appeal of a band like Phoenix, whose music is somehow both commercially and critically friendly?
Either way, Ithaca just hosted one of the best rock bands in the world.