Music review: Chris Richards on French rock band Phoenix at Constitution Hall

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By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Signs that things are amiss in Popland, U.S.A.:

Rolling Stone magazine is fawning over the Black Eyed Peas, America's best rappers are in prison and the greatest rock band roaming the Earth hails from France.

But don't be mad at Phoenix. At DAR Constitution Hall on Monday night, the Parisian troupe unpacked the best concert Washington might see this year. The guitars were loud, the choruses were jubilant, and the fist-pumping, aisle-dancing, whoo-hoo-ing fans were ecstatic. It was enough to make you wonder how rock-and-roll became such an angry man's game.

"It's so nice to meet you all!" shouted singer Thomas Mars, after the high-fructose thump of "Lasso," noting that the band's previous Washington show took place at the very modest, very cramped, very sweaty Rock & Roll Hotel last year. Mars added, "It was the size of [this] stage."

And that underscores the rocket-ship ride Phoenix has enjoyed over the past 365 days. Last spring, the band released "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," an album of taut, high-sheen tunes that remains almost impossible to dislike. Then came the spoils: an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," a Grammy for best alternative album and a recent coup at California's Coachella music festival. (Reports say the Frenchmen out-drew a reunited Pavement performing on a neighboring stage.)

But aural proof of Phoenix's stardom came from thousands of young lungs that greeted the band as it took the stage Monday and launched into the affable gallop of "Lisztomania." Strobe lights shimmering, Mars yelped out the chorus: "Lisztomania, think less but see it grow, like a riot, like a riot, oh!" His lyrics are often delivered in similarly scrambled English, but fans shouted along with every syllable as if it were scripture.

The song ended with the brawny drumming of 19-year-old Ben Thompson, who was making his first appearance with the band. Thompson has been keeping time for opening act Two Door Cinema Club on this tour, but Phoenix might want to snatch him up for good. His ham-fisted snare-thwacking sounded particularly tough on "Napoleon Says," a song from "It's Never Been Like That" -- the record that should have made Phoenix famous back in 2006. Instead, American critics brushed them off as soft-rock rehash. (Or even worse, a Gallic imitation of the Strokes.)

Critics and fans have since glommed onto "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" for its sprightly ways, and the band performed the album note for note -- save for a few charming flubs from guitarist-keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz during "Girlfriend." Fans hardly noticed, and launched into an unprompted clap-along.

"I don't see why not," Mars offered in response. He then tucked his microphone under his arm and joined in.

Mars is a rare and wonderful frontman -- polite without being ingratiating, demure without seeming aloof. During riotous vamps of "Run Run Run" and "Funky Squaredance," most dudes would be kicking over the amps. Instead, Mars casually flung his arms from side to side, as if skipping stones across some phantom pond.

For an encore, he and guitarist Christian Mazzalai trotted back onstage for a duet of "Everything Is Everything" -- a rendition that landed in a tender spot between Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" and Paul McCartney's "Yesterday."

But the band closed the evening on a much rowdier note. In what felt like a rejoinder to the Strokes' debut album "Is This It," Mars led his band into the anthemic "1901," declaring, "This is it!"

Only it wasn't it. After the song had reached its grand finale, the band soaked up the applause before roaring back to life. Equipped with what must have been 50 yards of microphone cable, Mars went marching down the aisles of Constitution Hall, into a throng of photo-snapping fans. When he invited them to follow him back onstage, they obliged, over 100 strong.

For a moment, it felt like that sweaty Rock & Roll Hotel show all over again.

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