Phantogram Turn Up Oakland’s Fox Theater


Photos by Kola Shobo
Words by Brandon Diaz

Hot off the presses with their second full-length release entitled Voices, the Upstate New York duo brought that boom to a sold out room.

The night kicked off with a mild dose of dream pop by opener White Sea. Fronted by the sultry M83 vocalist, Morgan Kibby, their 80’s-esque tunes wafted through the theater as the cool kids piled in quickly, eager to be close for the headliners. The trio played a near seamless set of agreeable tunes, including “Mountaineer,” just mellow enough to classify as chill, but gallant enough to command attention through bold falsettos, and confident drumming.

But even with garnering fair attention from an audience eager for the main event, the showstopper of White Sea’s set wasn’t their nocturnal, yet dancy “Cannibal Love,” but rather Kibby’s gold Wonder Woman belt and midnight purple pants-gown that drew eyes to the stage.

…and then there was that one group.

With her donning a cropped black and white leather jacket and him sporting crisp white button up and classic Fender guitar, Sarah Barthel, and Josh Carter, better known as Phantogram, brought their unparalleled sound machine to a very excitable Oakland crowd.

Backed by a drummer and another musician holding down keys and guitars, Phantogram played in front of an austere stage set – devoid of banners, bells, and whistles, instead opting for simple lighting and a classic black backset. The night’s heroes opened with two new numbers before kicking into the riding trip-hop cut, “Running From the Cops,” which got the floor rocking and lead to apparent crowd pleaser, “As Far As I Can See.”

Fifteen minutes into their well-planned ninety minute set, it was evident that the show-goers came to dance, as every successive song drew more hands in the air, and more bodies swayed to a collective groove through harmonies, drops, and breaks.

The new material was received well by the Oakland crowd, who seemed to even respond with feverish dance in moments where tunes slowed and the haze of smoke hung in purple lighting. The audience was entranced with great intent.

In prefacing a new slow-tune off Voices, Barthel confessed “This is a really sad song. It’s called ‘Bill Murray.’” As Carter began to pluck away on the opening lead she continued, “We named it Bill Murray because he always has a sad looking face;” and the track began. (Some moments shortly after, my brother leaned over to impart, “This song still slaps, though.” – It did).

The tone never sullied during the few slower songs played; Phantogram is just too, well, good. Concert-goers were wrapped up in that super-highway where the Flying Lotus-like rhythms, run into J Dilla breaks, and come out of the amps like they were remixed by David Banner.

One of my new favorite up-tempo cuts off of Voices, “Howling at the Moon,” fully enlivened the already kinetic concert-goers with a tempo hovering around 140-bpms.

And as if she were the hypnotist to a crowd hanging onto to her every physical rhythm, the sultry Barthel led the crowd’s dance grooves with the now-ubiquitous double fisted turnup dance; her pumping fists taking the place of a conductor’s baton. Carter, all the while head-banged, and broke into deep-knee rock squats as he strummed away and sang throughout the evening.

The opening guitar riff to hugely popular “When I’m Small” sent the building into an uproar and all out sing-along. (It doesn’t hurt to hear a room full of people collectively sing the phrase “show me love” several times).

One of the best parts of watching them recreate their tunes on stage was the sense that they themselves are fans of their own music; they know it’s air-tight. As with so many of their tracks, Phantogram is near perfection with song-writing that translates into performance music, as many of their tracks play out in resounding crescendos of 4/4 booming licks, that allow for the crowd to bounce in syncopation, instantly becoming a part of a uniform emotional experience.

Phantogram at the Fox was Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter fully immersing themselves in the trance of their own show: While she was on the pads and keys, he was on the strings, each encapsulated by their own cool, knowing that each next cut, break, or drop is as dressy as the one that preceded it; all done without pretension, while their faces hinted nobody does it like us.