By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn
On Tuesday, April 14th, concertgoers at The Great American Music Hall were treated to an intimate evening with PHOX- an evening in which guitars were played with the trunk of a stage-prop plant, banana-shaped maracas provided a festive backbeat and the crowd joined in to serenade the lead-singer’s mother via cell phone with a foggy rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.”
The sextet that walked onstage looked more like an assigned school project group than a band that’s held captive crowds of 20,000-plus: a skinny redhead wearing a safari hat, a chubby bespectacled keyboardist with a pencil-thin hair part, the clean-cut jock on lead guitar who can only stay until football practice starts and the obligatory guy wearing flip flops over socks that no one trusts to take the project home. The motley crue consists of six childhood best friends for whom nothing is off limits; the chemistry and trust among the bandmates is on constant display, not just when they’re shouting inside jokes to each other across stage.
In between songs, the stage banter had a beer-soaked college basement feel, their candor at times refreshing (“Coachella sucks… lots of sexy people but everyone looks the same and the sun is disorienting… but I like San Francisco.”), at times bordering on cringeworthy (“Matthew waxed his butt for this show… his girlfriend’s here!”). But when the lights dimmed, the six-piece outfit from Baraboo, Wisconsin—that sleepy town northwest of Madison that of course you’ve never heard of—buttoned it up. Standing beneath the vintage parlor-lit PHOX lettering, the group shared with the crowded room their genre-agnostic sound: at times folky, at times poppy, at all times soulful.
Midway through the evening, the band moved to the center of the stage where they huddled for an acoustic set, a nod to the crowded dining room of their shared house that doubles as a rehearsal venue, “because everyone knows musicians don’t have enough money to eat in their dining rooms.” And with just a guitar, a banjo and the ubiquitous banana maraca behind her, Monica Martin’s voice took the stage: a smoky, reverb-laden performance that silenced any suspicions of novelty with a range spanning the lows and highs of a bass drum and a fork on crystal glass. With one hand holding a fistful of her signature black curls, she led us through acoustic renditions of “1936,” “Kingfisher,” and “Evil” from PHOX’s eponymous first album, the crowd for a moment forgetting why they even bother plugging in.
But it was in the strangely beautiful cover of Blink 182’s “I Miss You” that the genre-transcendent potential of her voice became clear, as she took a vapid punk ballad, stripped it down and carefully dressed it in silky reverb to create a haunting folk melody that barely resembled the original. Martin’s voice has an unmistakable air of nostalgia, adding a layer of somber gravel to even their most spit-shined songs, the kind of voice that could sing you happy birthday and leave you staring off into the distance, pondering the ephemerality of time.
Unlike her sock and flip-flopped bandmate, Monica (or “Oprah” as she introduced herself) does look the part—tall, with a head of hair that could solicit volumizing tips from Macy Gray—but she doesn’t quite act it, at one point reflecting on their tour, “It’s not what I thought I’d be doing, but then again I didn’t have many thoughts.” And it’s comments such as this that remind us of the simplicity of what we’re witnessing: six really good friends who really enjoy playing music together. Who just happen to be really good at it.