At the end of December 2013, Phosphorescent played a four-night stand at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn; and for four-nights running, blew the roof off the place. Matthew Houck, fronting his six-piece band, plus two auxiliary strings players deployed throughout the set, played for more than 10 hours, all recorded and eventually edited down to the 19 tracks that appear on the new three-album set, Phosphorescent Live At The Music Hall.
“A live album is something I’d been thinking about for a long time,” says Houck. “We’d listen to rough recordings we’d made of shows and talk about maybe putting them out somehow. But this stuff is tricky. For a long time, I couldn’t get my head around the correct way of presenting a live record. What do you put on it, for a start?
“I felt like there are songs of mine that have changed so much since they were originally recorded, especially some of the older ones, they’ve grown into different songs.
“So there was a feeling that it would be good to get the new versions of them out there and I was really glad to have the chance to do that, even though I was still apprehensive about the whole idea. It’s hard sometimes when you play, say, 150 shows a year, if you release one version of a song as if it’s the ultimate version you got out of all these shows, it’s like you’re neglecting the other 149 times you played it, which may have had their own magic moments. So I needed the right presentation, the right context, the right moment so that things would hold up and give the performance a reason to exist outside of a bootleg or something. The Music Hall shows gave me the right opportunity at the right time.”
“They were special shows to cap a pretty big year,” says Houck of the Williamsburg stand. “We just wanted to have a big homecoming thing, where we did a big blow out at a really cool venue, which the Music Hall is. We didn’t put on the shows just to record them. We’d already recorded lots of shows, with the idea of getting around to the tapes at some point later to see what we had. But playing those four shows, it was clear something special was going on. After eight months of touring, we’d gotten to a really good point where we weren’t quite exhausted yet with the material, but we’d had enough time to really grow with the songs. So we were in that sweet spot where we were pulling something great out of the songs every night. But it was only when we played the tapes back that we realized we had an album that also kind of worked as a career retrospective.”
Live At the Music Hall spans nearly 10 years and four Phosphorescent albums total, going back to 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry. There are a further four tracks from 2007’s Dead Oceans debut Pride, on which Houck sang and played all instruments himself, highlights from which are a six minute, full band take on “At Death, A Proclamation”, originally not much more than two minutes on the original album, and an extraordinary solo version of “Wolves”, just Houck, electric guitar and a loop pedal, making the kind of noise at its climax that you might hear at the world’s end, an entropic howl.
From 2010’s breakthrough album, Here’s To Taking It Easy, there are three songs, notably the 10-minute guitar meltdown of “Los Angeles”, an epic onslaught that recalls the rugged roar of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The bulk of Live At Music Hall, however, is drawn from Muchacho, an album of heartbreak and euphoria, including a ravishingly orchestrated “Song For Zula” and expansive versions of “Terror In The Canyons”, “A New Anhedonia” and “The Quotidian Beasts”, given explosive new life by a terrific band at the top of their game.
The Phosphorescent live line-up features Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel and guitar, pianist Scott Stapleton, drummer Christopher Marine, bassist Rustine Bragaw, percussionist David Torch and keyboards player Jo Schornikow, the latter two both joining the band during the Muchacho album cycle.
“I truly can’t speak highly enough of them as a band,” says Houck. “They’re all really intuitive, great players and they give me so much freedom to play old songs they maybe don’t know that well, because they’re so good they can play just about anything. They’re everything I need in a band. They’re fearless, which means they’re not worried about playing a song, maybe even for the first time, in front of a lot of people, and not be intimidated. You just feel it and you go for it, together.”