“I saw the streets were of lightning/All out the window below/Yeah the beast was upon me, honey/I thought you should know,” sang Matthew Houck at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday night. And sure, the talismanic Phosphorescent frontman was in the midst of singing “The Quotidian Beasts,” but he might as well have been talking about fame. Or at least the expansion of his band’s audience.
When Houck brought his mournful and achingly majestic modern country outfit to Washington in March, it was booked into the relatively tiny Rock & Roll Hotel. But the rave reviews and best-of awards for “Muchacho” — the most recent record issued under the Phosphorescent moniker — have changed the band’s profile.
On Wednesday, Phosphorescent sold out the 9:30 Club and got most every ticket holder to actually show up on a frigid January night. The crowd was in a jovial but reverent mood — and seemed to be a mix of those who had seen the band in earlier incarnations and recent converts.
Houck’s 80-20 mix of new and older material (not to mention his awesome-and-sparkly-beyond-description cowboy boots) made it clear that his new songs demand a bigger stage. And in a set split between a full-band first half and a solo (with electric guitar) second, he filled every inch of the room.
So even though he neglected to play some of his most beautifully sad compositions (“The Mermaid Parade,” for example), the hour-plus set was magisterial.
By flipping the old Bob Dylan model of solo/band portions of a show, Houck did every number justice. The first half felt like a sprawling country-rock group-therapy session, while the second was the equivalent of him lying on the therapist’s couch.
A backing group of guitar, drums, dual keyboards, bass and percussion did recall Dylan’s old buddies the Band, but “Muchacho” highlights such as “Song for Zula” and “Terror in the Canyons” and earlier numbers such as “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” careened around like the best outlaw country, with Houck’s voice a keening, wondrous half caterwaul, half eulogy.
The solo half was a long, rolling drive through deserted plains, equally recalling Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and Houck touchstone Willie Nelson. An intense reading of “My Dove, My Lamb” was a bare-knuckle high point.
That Houck managed to keep both halves of the performance beautiful and gilt-edged was the real story, proving that he is one of the rare American singer-songwriters (alt-country or otherwise) who truly deserve a bigger audience. And he’s got the songs and vision to manage it the right way.
Foster is a freelance writer.