"We never thought we'd get here," Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars told the crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden Wednesday night (Oct. 21).
Indeed, the Garden seemed like an unrealistic venue for Phoenix to headline -- much less as part of the 2010 CMJ (College Music Journal) festival -- despite the band's copious radio airplay, features in TV ads, and a 2010 Grammy win for best alternative album. By the time Phoenix took the stage, though, the arena appeared be be nearly sold out. (It was nearly ten percent filled for first opener Wavves, with a more sizeable crowd for second opener Dirty Projectors.)
The French rockers launched their set with the ubiquitous "Lisztomania," and immediately the sound of massive bass and drums overtook the arena. As it ran through the entirety of last year's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," in addition to songs from earlier albums (which, unsurprisingly, most of the audience did not know), the band's playing came across simultaneously as nonchalant and epic.
Epic, for example, when a white curtain billowed out from the ceiling, covering the front half of the pit. The crowd ripped the curtain 30 seconds later, but the band went on unfazed, improvising on guitar to keep fans entertained.
Video: Phoenix and Daft Punk Perform at MSG
Phoenix achieved subtlety -- a difficult feat for a venue of MSG's proportion -- on "Love Like a Sunset." After playing for less than an hour, the band left the stage, and if it hadn't returned, the show could easily been touted as the most-overhyped of CMJ 2010. But Mars and co. were just getting started.
They appeared at the center of the floor several minutes later, amongst clamoring fans, to play a 1960s French folk song. As lovely as it was, the acoustic performance also conspicuously distracted the crowd from a new set-up taking place on stage.
When Phoenix returned to the main stage, feedback filled the air, serving as a cryptic pause before two helmeted figures assumed their posts behind a DJ booth. Few know what the two men behind French house duo Daft Punk look like, but Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christomet were met by shrieks from the crowd.
The two acts collaborated on "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" (which morphed into "Around The World" at one point) and blew Kanye West's take on the song out of the water, with Phoenix using restraint in its contribution. The respect was mutual, as Daft Punk added only touches here and there to "1901," which closed the show. It seems the only thing capable of improving the hook on Phoenix's biggest hit is the world's most beloved, and elusive, pair.