Phosphorescent works out the kinks at Johnny Brenda’s (photos, review, setlist)

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Of course, there’s a downside to making a record as intricate and delicately arranged as Phosphorescent‘s Muchahcho. The higher you set the bar for your listeners, the harder it is to live up to your own ambition.

On the first night of tour, with a new lineup of players in tow, Matthew Houck told a sold-out Johnny Brenda’s last night that the collective was admittedly rusty and working out the kinks. “Right on!” one fan screamed – presumably making a request for “Ride On / Right On,” a standout track from the new album, and not sharing some odd enthusiasm over the singer’s humility. But Houck deferred. “Yeah, that song’s got a lot of rust,” he said.

“Ride / Right” never did get played. And of the 90-minute / 13-song setlist, only four drew from Muchacho, with mixed results. Opener “Terror In The Canyons” was amped up from the forlorn pedal steel ballad we hear on the album. Its swirl of keys and guitar licks blazed onward to a powerful jam of “The Quotidian Beasts.” Things, at this point, looked and sounded great. And then the set took a sharp dive with a particularly weak performance of “Song for Zula” – the moving, heartrending, Johnny Cash-referencing vibey number that many are already calling song of the year. In its recorded version, the track really is that good – the meditative string loop carries the music into an otherworldy plane as Houck ponders love and loss. Last night, the string part was played through a synthesizer preset that carried none of the album’s allure, deflating what might have been a transcendent six-minutes of the set.

A stellar version of “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” from 2010′s Here’s To Taking It Easy followed, giving the band a brief rebound. Like “Terror,” the spacious album version was transformed into a rambling highway rocker, with staccato piano chords and solo upon solo. The song wrapped to thunderous applause, and its conclusion signaled two things. One, Phosphorescent began its trip into its extensive back-catalogue – which the fans packing the floor seemed massively appreciative of. Two, it began to jam. And once the players onstage entered jamming mode, everything kind of blended together in a leveled-out tone and timbre and tempo. The set, pretty much, coasted downward from here.

Which isn’t to say moments didn’t stand out. Houck spotted his friends Jonny Ollsin and Kim Krans of Family Band at stage left, calling out for “Los Angeles” from Here’s to Taking It Easy. As it happens, the duo is relocating from Philadelphia to L.A. very soon – “When are you leaving, tomorrow?” Houck asked them. “Wednesday?” – and this was the last show they were seeing in their short stay as Philadelphians. Houck brought them up onstage to sing backup on the song, and while it sounded like something out of the bonus DVD from The Last Waltz (read: fun but more than a little chaotic), it was a touching sight to see.

After closing the main set with a so-so take on fan favorite “Wolves” (it improved once the swell-to-crescendo started on the second verse), Houck returned to stage to perform a few solo numbers – covers of Willie Nelson (“Reasons to Quit,” which appeared on 2009′s To Willie and became a full-house singalong) and Waylon Jennings “Storms Never Last,” and a request for his own “Cocaine Lights.” These unadorned performances carried more power and potency than anything else we’d heard all night, but the full band returned (and jammed once more) to wrap the show on “At Death, A Proclamation.”

The general letdown can be attributed, mostly, to the rustiness Houck spoke of – the band sounded decent, they just didn’t sound amazing, and their style of playing only worked with maybe half the songs. For every rousing moment like “Quotidian,” there were meandering moments like “A New Anhedonia.” Hopefully the rust will be shaken off when Phosphorescent swings back around, which we can only assume will be later on this year.

Setlist

Terror In the Canyons
The Quotidian Beasts
Song for Zula
Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)
A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise
Los Angeles
A New Anhedonia
Joe Tex, These Taming Blues
Wolves

Encore:
Reasons To Quit (Willie Nelson)
Storms Never Last (Waylon Jennings)
Cocaine Lights
At Death, A Proclimation

Philly two-piece Strand of Oaks played a tremendous opening set, handily outshining their tourmates. Unlike the new Phosphorescent configuration, Oaks main man Tim Showalter and drummer Chris Ward have been playing together for more than a minute. They’re locked in, confident and vibe off one another in way that serves the songs – whether it’s a hammering version of “Diamond Drill” (where Ward played so hard his glasses fell off) or an aching revisit of “Daniel’s Blues.” The band just released the Darker Shores EP – a synthesizer-based companion to 2012′s Dark Shores – and some of that ambiance was soaked up and reflected in performances of “Satellite Moon” and “Spacestations.” This is a path I’m excited to see the group chase further.

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