Clifton Park

Review: Phantogram’s hometown return generates heroes’ welcome

Greenwich natives perform at Upstate Concert Hall
Sarah Barthel of Phantogram performs Saturday night at Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park.
Sarah Barthel of Phantogram performs Saturday night at Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park.

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have come a long way from their childhood in Greenwich, where they harbored big ambitions as they skateboarded in the local McDonald’s parking lot and bounced on backyard trampolines. 

Since then, they’ve gone on to find success with their band Phantogram, whose star has steadily ascended since the release of their 2009 debut EP. They’ve collaborated with hip-hop megastar Big Boi; their music has appeared in numerous prime-time TV shows and their third full length release, “Three,” reached No. 9 on the Billboard Top 200. 

It’s far from their humble beginnings in a tiny place with lots of “dirt, manure and beautiful people,” Barthel told the crowd at Upstate Concert Hall Saturday night. 

“We love coming home,” she said.

The band’s self-described “darkadelic” sound whirs together a potent mix of electro-pop, hip-hop, electronica and rock and roll.

In their first show at the Clifton Park venue since early-2017, Phantogram ushered the crowd through a set largely evenly spread across their three records.

The hometown stop comes midway through the band’s summer tour, and two weeks after the release of “Mister Impossible,” the new single from their upcoming untitled fourth LP, a cinematic, Dust Brothers-type banger that sounds massive in all of the right ways — with Barthel punching out keyboard melodies as Carter shredded sharp squalls of anxious guitar riffs over a trip-hop beat.

The duo were backed by a keyboardist/programmer and live drummer, who provided a loose framework that helped open up their tightly-polished studio anthems and give them flight. Barthel also switches between synthesizer and bass. 

The band, hitting the road for the first time in nearly two years, largely limited their new output to the previously-released singles — the other is the soaring and ethereal “Into Happiness” — but promised new music is on the way.

“We have a [expletive] of new music which we could be playing right now,” Barthel said.

The duo, who trade off vocals, clearly have on-stage chemistry and have fun in the process. Fans were enthralled through their dynamic 90-minute set, which included traditional rock ballads like “You Are the Ocean,” which the band hasn’t played in seven years, to sing along favorites like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small.” 

The band dedicated the hip-hop influenced “Calling All” to the local crowd and the “crossroads,” their former teenage hangout spot.

But while their output contains ample doses of sass — “Calling All” is firmly geared towards club play, replete with mildly-salacious lyrics — their songwriting is also deeply streaked with melancholy.

The band has referred to songwriting as a form of therapy. 

“We release our experiences and sadness and happiness into our songs,” Barthel told Pitchfork in 2016. 

That sadness hits achingly close to home: Barthel’s sister, Becky, died by suicide in 2016 during the making of “Three,” a tragedy that steered the record into dark waters.

Since then, the band has made raising awareness of suicide prevention a focal point and recently recorded a two-song EP to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Barthel acknowledged the wounds still run deep, and pleaded with the audience to speak with someone if they’re feeling sad.

“Please don’t go away,” she said. “Stay here and talk to people — it’s OK to be vulnerable. I’m being vulnerable right now.”

The band dedicated the still-unreleased song “Ceremony” to Becky, a wrenching and emotional journey that pummeled its way to a cathartic conclusion with a drained Barthel on the floor.

Support came from MUNYA, a singer-songwriter who performs what she has dubbed “new synth folk,” a combination of dream-pop with twee lyrics sung in both in English and French.

The Montreal-based artist, born Josie Boiyin, started out wobbly but quickly gained her footing and grew more confident during the eight-song set, switching between synthesizer and guitar while bathed in a soft pink light. 

The standout was “If I’m Gone Tomorrow (It’s Because of Aliens”), which she described as a breakup song. 

MUNYA appeared dazzled at her surroundings at times and told the crowd she went went from writing songs in the basement of her parent’s house to traveling and playing festivals within a year, including the prestigious SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

She has said she wants her music to simply put smiles on peoples’ faces. 

And in that, she largely succeeded.

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