Concert Review: Phantogram


November 2, 2011
The Fillmore
Better than: Being stuck in a Phantogram music video.

Having made the festival rounds this summer, Phantogram settled into the Fillmore last night just two years after it released its first album. The sold-out show was proof that the duo, keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter, has managed to build a loyal fan base in a short amount of time. Fans packed the room and crowded the stage before the lights dimmed, and eagerly awaited what was about to be an incredible show.

With lasers and colors that reflected eerie keyboard lines and spiraling guitar riffs, the duo took the stage and presented a visual experience to fit its sound. Barthel, the visual artist in the group, created spectacular lighting effects that gave the show the quality of an expensive industrial party in some far-flung warehouse.

Phantogram’s body of work evokes Portishead and Moby, but those subtle trip-hop beats are pulled into the future with an inventive psych-pop twist. Following its debut album, Eyelid Movies, Phantogram released the EP Nightlife earlier this week. Aptly titled, both albums feel like supernatural nightmare soundtracks. The show last night was a balanced combination of both records, and the crowd had already memorized and sang along to the new songs released just days ago.

With a voice as ethereal as her vocal work, Barthel didn’t complicate the music with banter between sets. When she did talk, her words were difficult to understand. It only added to the feeling of being stuck in some kind of elegant nightmare, like the band’s music video for “When I’m Small.” The set was sparse and lights were flashing. Even with hundreds of other fans in the room, it was as if they invited just you into their heads. What threw off this intimate vibe was the huge bass, which made it hard to get too close. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or a misstep by the Fillmore crew. But it took away from the band’s otherwise dreamy sound.

With only an album and an EP, Phantogram seemed to run quickly through most of its material. But the set was a great mix of old and new. The heavy lights in “Mouth Full of Diamonds” had an underwater aesthetic, as if the duo was seducing the crowd into drowning with a sinking ship. “Don’t Move,” one of the highlights from the EP, was also one of the highlights of the evening, with layered beats and synths grooving with the light display.

As a relatively new band, Phantogram is one to watch, and it will be exciting to see how it develops with a little more time. Its energy at the show and the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction certainly signaled that this duo has the creative power to stick it out.

Cartoonish opening band Reptar — a reference to the ’90s cartoon “Rugrats” — played an incredibly danceable psych-rock set. It was as if David Byrne got together with Air and the Muppets. The keyboardist, William Kennedy, was having the most fun onstage by far. I managed to track him down during Phantogram’s set and asked what it was like to play at the Fillmore. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Every time we play here it’s like the sky is opening and it’s raining rainbow raindrops.”

Critic’s Notebook
Most informative shirt award: Goes to Reptar’s leading man, Graham Ulicny, whose shirt read: “Science gives me a large hadron.” In case you skipped lab, a hadron is a class of subatomic particles that are composed of quarks and take part in strong interaction.

Most ironic poster award: At the end of the show, fans were given a poster of a toy poodle sitting next to a rose that looked like a rave handout you find slipped between your wiper and windshield.

Overheard: “That bass really messed me up, dude.”

See the full review in Sf Weekly‘s All Shook Down blog.

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