I have a really good time at the Phantogram gig. A good time before it – on what could be described as a double date, but shouldn’t be, given the people and the amount of brinkmanship involved – and a good time afterwards (see above re being on a date). It isn’t until I come to write about the gig that I start to wonder why that is, the good time, because saying I had a good time is different from saying the gig itself was good. At least, I think it is. And I’m still trying to work it if one is inherently better than the other.
To start, the facts. The gig is sold-out. Phantogram interacts with neither the crowd nor each other. They play When I’m Small too late in the set, which is to say, anything after third in the order. But when they do, the floor bucks under us. The ballads from the new album sound a little like they wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to The OC, which stops them from dragging but does not encourage lyrical engagement. The encore starts with Barking Dog, a song written after frontwoman Sarah Barthel’s sister’s suicide, and perhaps because singer Josh Carter gives us that context, it’s the first song to register any sort of emotional impact, for me anyway. After that, the set moves on to what a nearby man in the crowd defines with his cupped hands as choons: Fall In Love, which I heard first as sampled by Kanye, Don’t Move, and the lead single from the new record, You Don’t Get Me High Anymore. All note-perfect, polished, very cool, extremely competent. In other words, if you’re the kind of person who goes to live shows hoping to hear the band reproduce their records as faithfully as possible, beats dropping and vocals soaring in the all the same places, this one is for you.
And it seems there are loads of those kinds of people in the audience. Also, men. More than I expected, but then I’m often in the position of realising, on watching the audiences at gigs, that I’m wrong about what kind of band or music it is I’m seeing. The front row is a nineties rogue’s gallery: a man in the Liam Gallagher parka, another in a Limp Bizkit cap, a third in a shirt even Chandler Bing might’ve found too baggy. A man who gets in way too close with his phone. They all dance energetically. (Not the phone man; he’s fully terrible.) Behind them, a man in a beard and a reindeer jumper who barely moves, even to the choons. And next to us, eyes closed, midriffs out and having the time of their lives, a group of people who are definitely into fire poi.
Barthel is in black, the collar around her neck attached by a length of silver-studded leather to her belt. Her hair is blonde at the roots, black at the tips, cut at an angle, and she shakes it arrhythmically to the music. Carter is in a Plaitum t-shirt. They had chicken curry and nachos for their dinner (earlier, we stood behind them at the bar, letting the enamel goose on one of the taps decide our order for us while we eavesdropped like creeps). These are the facts. Are they important?
In trying to work out what is important, I think about the gigs I’ve been to this year, which were properly good, which only a good time (as if only were an appropriate modifier for a good time in 2016). I start wondering about what makes a gig good. Faithful reproductions of the albums – or gigs that are only that – aren’t for me. I understand wanting to see and hear a one-take level of skill, but I’d rather a bum note now and then than something that’s the same as it is behind headphones or in my room. I start wondering about why I even go to see live music. I like listening to loud music in a place that isn’t my house with other people who also like said music. I like hearing what the artist does live, how it’s different, how they play to the space, the possibility for interaction. Like seeing them connect to the audience or to each other, and so learning a little more about them.
Tonight, I go for these reasons, and because the Deaf Institute always gets a little sweaty, the floor seems to warp under the weight of the dancing crowd. And although I don’t like to be held on to or talked to during a gig, preferring instead to dance and smile (and maybe cry if we’re talking Alanis Morissette or Tori Amos), I’m there for the company, too. And so while a good time doesn’t necessarily presuppose a good gig, maybe the distinction doesn’t matter all that much? Not for the purposes of life anyway; reviews I’m not so sure about.
Phantogram live are not like, say, The Knife live. They’re like Phantogram not-live. If you like their records, go see them. Go see them if you like to watch the people around you react, tapping turquoise rings against their pint glasses, shouting every lyric up at the band, imagining fire between their hands. Go see them if you like being in warm rooms that smell of beer. If you want to think about nothing, if you want to free-associate about noughties TV shows and how vague lyrics could totally be applied to your life. Go see them if you like to dance, or watch buttons light up with different samples. Go see them if the company is good enough that even facing in the same direction, touching intermittently, only occasionally looking over to smile at each other, it’s fun because a key part of the good time is talking to them about the gig afterwards. Go see them if you’re wearing something backless or sleeveless or that isn’t tucked in and you’re standing next to someone whose hands have always and already worked out the quickest way to your bare skin, whose sweat you want to feel on your palms. Go see them even if you’re not yet sure if it’s like or love.
If any of that applies, go, the next time they’re in town. You’ll have a good time, I promise, even if you’re not quite sure why.