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MANILA, Philippines – There was a monstrous traffic jam on EDSA Tuesday night, but many fans still turned up early at the World Trade Center in Pasay City to see Phoenix play for the first time in the Philippines.
Despite numbered seating at the VIP area, early birds managed to squeeze themselves front and center and secure prime viewing spots to maximize the experience of seeing and hearing the show. They would be thanking their lucky stars later for being so punctual.
The foursome of Thomas Mars (vocals), Deck d’Arcy (bass and keyboards), and brothers Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai (guitars) are originally from Versailles and play an exuberant, hypnotic mix of alternative rock and dance-pop that appeal to a very specific slice of the music listening public.
Phoenix may not exactly have the most number of fans, but most of those who respond favorably to their music are diehards who have followed their career through 14 years and 5 studio albums. Taste in music may be severely subjective, but there seems to be a general consensus that if musicians were ranked based on their “cool” factor, Phoenix would be at or near the very top.
I was one of those caught in the traffic jam, but at the exact moment when my friend and I finally made our way inside the venue, the lights dimmed, the crowd’s whoops of excitement swelled and the band casually walked out onstage – no opening act.
Thanks to Google, there were no surprises with the first song—“Entertainment” off their new album called Bankrupt!. They’ve been following pretty much the same setlist on this current tour. But in an earlier interview, Mars said they try to mix it up a little with each stop. “Most of the time what keeps it very special for us is the different crowd,” he said. “It’s the fact that it’s never the same.”
The Manila audience did not disappoint. The vocalist seemed visibly pleased that the words coming out of his mouth were being thrown back at him by thousands of eager viewers, especially during “Lisztomania” and “Long Distance Call,” two of their most popular songs from their two previous albums (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and It’s Never Been Like That).
“Manila!” Mars shouted. “We waited 14 years to come here.” I heard people around me shout back, “Yeah! What took you so long?!”
“You’re the best crowd,” Mars continued. “The loudest!” The cynic in me wanted to reply, “I bet you say that to all your audiences,” but everyone seemed to lap it up and revel in the ultimate compliment from a visiting artist. Who knows if he was being entirely sincere, but at that moment, with endless, eardrum-shattering shrieks everywhere, and an overall atmosphere of fellowship and fun, it seemed appropriate. The good vibes were almost palpable.
The band performed a mix of old and new songs, including, in succession, “Girlfriend,” “The Real Thing,” “Trying to Be Cool,” “Run Run Run,” “Sunskrupt!” “Consolation Prizes,” “Love Like a Sunset,” “S.O.S. in Bel Air,” and “Armistice.”
Mars engaged the audience and sang with almost exactly the same voice as he does on record—smooth, sultry, in softly French-accented English. They were all modestly dressed in button-downs and trousers and I couldn’t help but think how they were probably the most unassuming bunch of rock stars I’ve ever witnessed onstage. Still, the band had electric stage presence, considerably heightened by the excellent sound system and the topnotch contributions of tour support musicians, especially the drummer.
When the familiar strains of worldwide hit “1901” came on, it was pandemonium. The band has probably performed this song live more times than they can count, but for most of the Manila audience that was hearing it live for the very first time, it was truly something special. The chorus was sung with such gusto that it was like a dam burst and waves of voices joined Mars and the rest of the band for the ultimate sing-along.
The band ended the regular set then but it didn’t take long before they reappeared to do four more songs, including a stirring, intimate rendition of “Countdown,” with just Mars and Mazzalai. The frontman found a place to sit down with the audience out in front. I imagine the people who got to watch him sing in front of them whipped out their phones to capture the moment for eternity. Lucky.
The band played one of their earliest hits, “If I Ever Feel Better,” then “Rome,” before performing an extended reprise of “Entertainment” that had Mars walking with his microphone to the back of the venue, then making his way back onstage by wading through the sea of people (at one point, he must have crawled upside down as I could see his shoes towering above audiences’ heads). After 18 songs, the foursome finally said their farewells amidst a spectacular shower of white confetti.
It was a near-flawless technical performance by a likable, talented bunch of really nice guys, with a succession of hit songs that had almost everyone on their feet dancing. As my friend and I slowly made our way out, I thought about how Phoenix made it possible for fans to fall in love with them even more that night. The Frenchmen finally conquered the Philippines and, in the process, set the bar really high for concerts in Manila this year.
Watch Phoenix performing their hit “Lisztomania” during their concert last January 21, as uploaded by YouTube user tearyjerky.
Paul John Caña is the Managing Editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana