It’s no small thing that Phantogram sold out Upstate Concert Hall on Saturday. There was a time when we could have chalked up such a feat to fluke luck and the draw of a home crowd. But the Saratoga Springs duo did the same for virtually every other tour stop on their recent East Coast run (tonight they’re in Mexico City). This is still pretty amazing, even after adjusting our local perspective of the band to that of a national phenom, given their rise in recent years. Last winter, the band were featured on Big Boi’s solo record, and this spring they showed up on the latest Flaming Lips release. But maybe the biggest bump of all happened just this fall with a track, “Lights,” landing on the Hunger Games Catching Fire soundtrack. But all this and an hors d’oeuvres EP, Black Out Days, wouldn’t necessarily point to blockbuster tour status (their sophomore LP Voices doesn’t land until mid February) were it not for one critical and obvious element: They’ve become a fantastic live act.
For this go-round, the duo, who have toured in the past with live drummer Tim Oakley of the Mathematicians, grew to a foursome, adding drummer Chris Carhart and keyboardist Nick Shelestak to the almost-never-directly spotlit stage. Even Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter were mostly silhouetted by the haze machine and wandering backlights, an optical effect that properly conveyed the searching lyricism and themes of obfuscation and anesthesization in the band’s music. In fact, the band’s light man might be regarded as the unsung fifth member, strobing out crisp rhythms in unison with the group and dancing harder than virtually anyone else in the room.
It’s this dancability that has, perhaps more than anything else, allowed Phantogram to rise above their peers working in synthpop, darkwave and psychedelia. Openers Weeknight provided compelling counterpoint, as the guy-girl NYC duo appeared to be cloned from Phantogram’s jet-black follicle but could only mope in the space the headliner swaggered. Having listed J Dilla as an influence from the start, Phantogram’s buoy their melodies with syncopated drum breaks and tasty horn and vocal samples, all chopped and quantized for percussive effect. EP title track and live standout “Black Out Days” follows the formula that has made their biggest hits—“Mouthful of Diamonds,” When I’m Small” and especially “Don’t Move,” from 2011’s Nightlife EP—so infectious and body-moving.
The other thing these, the band’s most popular tracks, have in common is Barthel’s vocal lead. Indeed, it’s Barthel, whose innocent coo contrasts with a jagged bob and shadowed emotionality, who has become the band’s icon. So, it was surprising to note how many tunes Carter was afforded lead status. Nerdy and slightly morose, Carter is often just the guitar dude in videos or when the band play late-night TV, but he was far from just a backing force, offering some of the night’s most intense and fractured tunes like “Running From the Cops,” “Turn It Off” and the new Phil Collins-y “Never Going Home.” More than offsetting Barthel’s presence, Carter continues to affirm the group’s “band” status, even while folks like Wayne Coyne might cherry-pick Barthel for collaborative purposes.
Whether a product of rising commercial success or general maturity as musicians, Phantogram are a noticeably more confident band on the eve of their sophomore record. Songs built to higher heights, both Barthel and Carter reached for more in their vocal range, and a new R&B swerve is starting to rear its head on tracks like “Fall in Love,” the new record’s first single. So we local fans can stop rooting and start bragging; the band have outgrown their local footnote (but not without Barthel’s heartfelt recognition of early support), and this scene deserves to revel in that victory as much as Phantogram do.