Are Phoenix The Greatest Rock Band In America Right Now?

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Are Phoenix, an electronic pop group from France, the greatest rock band in America right now? This was the question that started buzzing in my mind as I walked out of the Hollywood Bowl last night, or rather danced out, with hundreds of other fans still humming and glowing from what was unquestionably one of the best shows I’ve seen in 2017. The band are touring behind their sixth, sun-kissed album, Ti Amo, out last Friday, and though I fell in love with the band back in 2009 along with the rest of the country, last night was my first time seeing them live. They blew me away.

Are Phoenix the best rock band in America right now? Maybe, on Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl they were. Or at least the greatest band in LA; or at least the greatest band in the Hollywood Bowl, which was packed out with The Lemon Twigs and Mac DeMarco, both, as openers; or at least, the greatest band in the world to a girl sitting in Terrace 3, Row 1031, Seat 3.

A band is only as big as their biggest fan on that one definitive night, right? That was me last night, watching Phoenix perform songs off their brand new Ti Amo, along with many songs from all the albums before that, “Long Distance Call” off It’s Never Been Like That, and of course, “Lisztomania” off Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the album that made me fall in love with them in the first place.

First of all, the band performed with a huge sheet mirror angled just above them, so their every move was reflected back, in reverse, above them. A magnificent light show emanated around and across the stage all night, flipping from bright, white light to soft pastels, technicolor bursts, and rainbow-hued stripes. It too, was reflected back in this huge mirror. Overhead shots of a band are always the coolest f*cking thing, but usually you only get to see those later, via the work of a resourceful concert photographer. Instead, this view was also present the entire show, giving us shots of them dancing and jamming out upside down; at times it made it seem like two bands were onstage, and all throughout, Phoenix definitely had the energy of at least two, maybe three bands. They were rockstars, professionals, and it looked like they were having the time of their life, too.

When I discovered this band I was in college, living in Malibu, about a year away from graduation. For me, college wasn’t the glorious escapism that so many of my peers seem to have found; I often felt lonely and out of place at Pepperdine, which, despite the constant shimmer of heat, could be a cold place. Finding Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009 felt like discovering the friend I couldn’t find on campus; it felt like a distillation of all the goldenness that California promises when you’re not there.

But back then, I always conceived of Phoenix as a pop band. Of course, this was before I’d seen them live. Because, let me tell you, I just saw one of the greatest rock bands, arguably of all time, when U2 were here for their Joshua Tree tour, and Phoenix held their own with that show.

Even if I had previously identified Phoenix as pop, it was smarter synth pop for a discerning ear, there were no label-manufactured duets, no guest stars, no earmarked “hits” — though “1901,” “Lisztomania,” and I’d even argue “Entertainment” have all became those. But on Ti Amo, and at their live show, it becomes clear that even if Phoenix are incorporating synth pop and hooks into their sound, they’re a rock band. These songs may get translated into French synth-pop, but listening to the meandering guitar lines and minute-long instrumentals live at the Hollywood Bowl wasn’t akin to electronic music and an eventual drop, but more like following a really good blues solo. These instrumentals speak and move, drawing the songs toward their eventual epicenters.

At one point, right after the band interpolated a tiny snippet of my favorite track of theirs, “Love Like A Sunset,” into the end of another song, one of the guitarists moved to the front of the stage, and played an electric guitar solo, spotlighted alone, with so much joy he was almost openly laughing. It might be the most joyful moment in music I’ve seen in all of 2017, a middle-aged French man strumming away on an electric guitar with the most tender happiness. Albums like this one, which are focused toward romance and sunlight and feeling carefree, become essential when we’re living in an era that’s constantly marked by darkness and political oppression.

This man’s joy doesn’t undo all the other suffering I’ve been exposed to this year, but it is a good reminder that feelings on both ends of the spectrum continue to exist, even if it seems like we hear so much more about the bad. I write this all the time, but this is it what music is for me, a vivid reminder of goodness, a shield against the onslaught of hate, a defiant act of creativity that flies in the face of nihilistic, capitalistic and hateful forces. Ti Amo, “I love you,” the phrase is so overused in English it has begun to lose its sheen, but it’s actually a powerful statement for a band to make in 2017.

Rock music is changing all the time, and though many critics keep trying to argue it’s going away, Phoenix feel like proof that the genre is continuing to morph and molt into something new, something better than it was before. At one point in the night, the spotlight turned away from the band and onto the crowd, who spontaneously danced on their own during the entirety of a song with the kind of free affection that’s hard to find this year. This is what rock music is supposed to do, right? Offer enough freedom for people to move their bodies, to physically affirm their own joy in communal movement.

As if drawn in by this very thought, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars performed the band’s final few songs standing on the armrests of chairs out in the pit closest to the stage. Then, when it was all over, led his band in a charge running all the way up the Hollywood Bowl’s steep incline, all the way to the nosebleeds. It was an act of old school rock and roll connection, a brilliant, riveting and funny end to a show that had me asking, while I danced out across the same aisle the guys themselves had just crossed, is Phoenix the greatest rock band in America right now? From row 1031, the answer is yes.