San Francisco Bath House
Tuesday, December 31
It’s a special night – it’s New Year’s Eve and it’s the last gig at The San Fran Bath House in its current state/guise. It’s still unclear as to what will happen and what the venue will be like, but it was important – and correct – to have The Phoenix Foundation on the bill for the closing night, they’ve played a lot of great gigs at this venue and they’re one of the best bands we’ve got.
It’s a great set too – heavy with tunes from Fandango and Buffalo, and why not, both are near-perfect albums; certainly if you’re cherry-picking live highlights. Oh there are other gems too, 40 Years is right in the opening pack – and goddamn that’s a song!
I don’t know if it’s just because in Chris O’Connor the band has found its Glenn Kotche, but to me it’s clear that the (probably annoying) comparison that has Phoenix Foundation as a Kiwi Wilco has never been more apt. Let’s clarify, the bands do not sound alike, but there’s this sprawl within the sound, this idea of sonic exploration; there’s a precision in the playing too – in the way that you can see all the moving parts, you can see and feel each part moving separately, but all you actually hear is the whole band – that wonderful sound of the machine in motion, that end product that arrives because the half-dozen players on stage are all working for the song.
They’ve improved as songwriters, and that much is clear when you hear all the Fandango/Buffalo tunes pouring out from the stage. These are top tunes. One of my favourite things about this band is that each new album brings with it a new gold standard. And this is my first time – properly – hearing the Fandango tunes live.
And we get a glimpse of the new EP – currently being recorded. There are a couple of new tunes tonight and one of them, introduced as (I think?) “Bob Lennon and John Dylan” is really bloody good; like nearly career-best good, like The Strokes if they were capable of making really good music once again (or ever).
Of course we have to hear some indulgence too – because that’s what happens at a Phoenix Foundation gig. It used to be that the banter became some strange in-joke to frame awkwardness – but that’s been clipped back. Now when Luke and Sam trade deadpans it’s okay, it’s good. But we find out that Sam Scott is a worse clarinet player than Patti Smith. And the set suffers, slightly, for not having one or two more of the really good songs from the earlier albums.
But there are so many magic moments. The new songs seem to work on two levels – first they place down the song; beautiful, perfect pop songs. Bits of shoegaze and dream-pop and all the correct indie touchstones. Then just as you think the songs might have been laid to rest they lift up, they go for a magic carpet ride, they dream on and drift on and spiral and sprawl and it’s never ever close – fortunately – to prog-rock, but it’s often miraculous just how good these instrumental sequences are. No scene-stealers or scenery-chewers within the band.
Damn The River arrives as one of the encores, and that little hiccup of a guitar line will still make you think of David Kilgour recording a Dire Straits song, or – if this is sillier/stranger – Mark Knopfler stepping up to a jam night at The Cook.
The only bummer about this gig – because the clarinet cacophony was still cool, a bit silly, but that’s kinda great – is the band choosing to close out the night with Friendly Society, the side-long closer of Fandango; I’ve seen them damn-near ruin shows before with this trick. The petulant indulgence of the band, their sureness that this song is a) a song and b) something anyone other than the people on stage might want to hear can, I guess, be respected. Admired, even. But I don’t have to like it. I can’t like it. I’ve given that song far too many chances already. When they debuted it a couple of years ago – to round out the worst gig I ever saw this band play – it was almost unforgivable. That they’ve battled on in serving this up is clearly some kind of cosmic joke I’m just not privy to. And that’s okay. But I’d rather the awkward banter.
So I took a walk. I had to. Because, you see, prior to that ugly reverie gone astray this was the single best Phoenix Foundation set I’ve seen. All up. This was (further) proof that they’re the truly great band working in this country at this time; the best in the land.
But it was New Year’s Eve man, what a giant fucking buzz-kill momentum-lurch it was to close off the night with their biggest (only?) turkey. I don’t get it. I kinda like that I don’t get it. Especially when I don’t have to hear it.
So that was the tale of the tape for me. And I was off before the countdown and in bed shortly after. I was sick as a dog and had contemplated not heading out – but I’m glad I did. Because it’s nice to be reminded of just how good this band can be.
And farewell to the Bath House. We had us some times I tell ya.