by John Nicholson
There’s a reason why PHOX has been rising steadily up through the indie ranks. From their early days in Baraboo, Wisconsin to Monday’s sold out show at Philly’s Boot and Saddle, the camaraderie amongst this troupe of versatile folk pop storytellers has not faded. Not in the very least.
After a bossanova-infused opening set by the impressive four-piece Oakland rock band, Trails and Ways, PHOX made their way up to the stage. Before the headliners even picked up their instruments, each member of the seven piece band huddled up, put their hands in the middle, said a few words and stepped, smiling over snake wires and pedal boards, to their spots. The ritual led to some loving ‘awws’ from the packed house.
Their friendly warmth quickly spread through the crowd as “Shrinking Violets’” bouncy keyboard melody sprang us into the first song of the night. It was an open invitation to join them on the night’s colorful escapade, and we were never led astray. Monica Martin, lead singer and frontwoman, entranced listeners with each dreamy, elevated refrain and vibrant verse. Like a ribbon, she could pull her voice taut or let it loose. And she did, with a few drops of sugar for good measure.
Guided by a playful banjo riffs, marching drum beats and careful harmonies from either side of the stage, Martin’s sultry ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs’ effortlessly filled the room. Between songs, she thanked the crowd candidly and rambled through each musical break with hilarious personal anecdotes (her cousin is one-time Eagles’ full-back, Cecil Martin), self-deprecating observations about love and tender displays of support.
But what did it — I mean what really solidified PHOX’s presence on Monday night — was “1936”, a hypnotic labyrinth of sparse banjo, lilting guitar, brass and references to the Ringling Brothers. It’s a graceful, nostalgic song about their hometown and its ‘most famous’ attraction, the Baraboo Circus Museum. The draw was obvious, and like so many of the bands other numbers, “1936” puts you smack in the center of the story’s setting, leads you through its subtle nuances and ultimately makes sense of the gripping madness.
As they do on the new record, the band’s technical, indie rock sound kept Martin’s heady melodies grounded through the entire set. Laced with soul and infused with bits of jazz, each song navigated the mid-tempo landscape with enough room for Martin to add vocal flourishes if she couldn’t hold back. Multiple songs required guitarists Zach Johnston and Matt Holmen to switch from banjo to guitar, electric to acoustic, electric guitar to horn and back and forth. The constant rearranging never took it’s toll though and they never missed a note. The same goes for keyboardist, Matteo Roberts, “the first of the crew to go down…and get married.” Though he drove the set on multiple occasions with Feist-like piano progressions and an eternal grin, Roberts also busted out an old Danelectro electric guitar to lend a little harmonic edge to the set. It quickly became apparent that each member is a talented multi-instrumentalist.
After taking us through a string of three “sad bastard love songs” — “Kingfisher”, “Satyr and the Faun” and “Evil” — Martin picked up her ukelele. Her voice quickly shifted from a stage-banter lightness to grateful sincerity. The boy on which “Calico Man” is based actually showed up in Philly earlier that day and surprised her. In an instant, the far-away, melancholic love ballad came closer and grew new depth. She dedicated the song to him as the band sat down (literally) and let Martin sing it so sweetly. And like true pros, PHOX let the heavy awe sit just long enough before rolling into a Zach Johnston original called “Garden of Night.” An impeccable shift, the song moved much like Billy Joel’s rollicking sleepwalk-anthem “The River of Dreams.” Martin even invited us to “howl like wolves” with her and the band mid-song.
We were eating straight out of PHOX’s hand. And, with their biggest hit to date, the proud Wisconsinites put an exclamation point on the Boot and Saddle set. Davey Roberts rapped his sticks on the snare, Johnston plucked the banjo and the band spilled in. Finally, Martin belted the first words of “Slow Motion” and all at once, the whole venue started to shake, sway and sing along with the contagious chorus, infectious whistles and bouncy harmonies.
The final few songs were an elaborate cool down of slower jams packed with lost love, revelations and optimism — one an homage to Martin’s younger sister. As the set developed so naturally and came to an inevitable end, it was clear that PHOX has mastered the artful balance between musical complexity and open space. Perhaps it’s Martin’s intoxicating vocal range, or the band’s close collaborative style. Either way, it’s admirable for such a young band on their first headlining tour.