First came the smell — a pungent incense that had been lit at the center of the stage. Then the large marquee lettering affixed to the backdrop of the stage blazed to life, spelling out “C’est La Vie” and casting a muted light onto the band’s instruments, which were lying in wait. Finally, after an extended break following the opener’s understated set, a celestial choir of voices was piped in over the loudspeakers as the band took the stage and began to play.
Just like that, in the span of about 30 seconds, Nashville band Phosphorescent immediately cast a spell over the solid but not nearly sold-out midweek Rev Room crowd that would not be broken for the remainder of their set. The six-piece band, which traffics in a lush, quasi-Americana vein that defies easy categorization, played with a joyful warmth that quickly transported the crowd away from the drizzly night on April 24.
Phosphorescent, which is largely known for its principal songwriter, guitarist and lead singer Matthew Houck, has been around for almost 20 years, slowly building a devoted fan base and widespread critical acclaim. The band has an expansive sound, with swirling organ, barroom piano and Houck’s guitar work grounded by a prominent rhythm section consisting of a traditional drummer, a multi-instrumental percussionist and rock-solid bass.
Phosphorescent’s recorded songs routinely run longer than 5 minutes, and were given even more room to breathe in the live setting, during which the band skillfully vamped and locked into dynamic grooves, effortlessly waxing and waning to create an overpowering frenzy or to showcase an individual musician, depending on the song or situation.
The keys especially stood out. Scott Stapleton, the band’s piano player, despite a look more associated with a heavy metal band (long hair well-suited for headbanging, a cutoff Metallica T-shirt and an affinity for lifting his hand to unleash the universal symbol for rock ’n’ roll), was featured heavily, his steady rhythmic pounding occasionally giving way to show-stopping solos and rolling crescendos. Jo Schornikow, Houck’s wife, opened the show with her own intimate solo material, and played the organ, which also features prominently in the band’s potent mix.
But the star of the show was Houck, whose voice is a singular and dynamic instrument thick with emotion, just on the beautiful side of a croak. On standouts like “A Song For Zula” and “C’est La Vie No. 2,” the title track from the band’s most recent album, he abandoned his guitar and fully devoted himself to his vocals, eyes closed and voice straining, often in beautiful harmony with himself through the impressive use of looping and other effects pedals. On a number of songs, such as “Christmas Down Under,” Houck used these technologies to create a chorus from his own voice, a choir of tender melodies that seemed to echo as if being cast off into a much larger venue.
Perhaps the most endearing moments of the show came when Houck mingled with the audience, many of whom had made their devotion known throughout the show by singing along or shouting at the band between songs. During the show’s final songs, Houck left the stage with his microphone, never breaking stride as he hugged certain fans he had noticed singing along, handing out high fives and bro hugs to his many devotees.
Here’s hoping it’s not too long before Phosphorescent returns to Central Arkansas, hopefully on a weekend, with another glowing performance befitting of the band’s name.