Double-Daring Duo of Phantogram Likes to Play Rough

For the first time since opening for the Antlers on April 26, 2010, at the Fox Theatre, the explosive 1-2 combination of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter was back in Boulder, Colorado, presumably under far cushier circumstances.
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After spending five glorious days at Nashville's AmericanaFest 2014 in September, the urge upon returning home was to expand some musical boundaries.

All it took was a Phantogram piggyback ride to cross the rhythm nation border.

For the first time since opening for the Antlers on April 26, 2010, at the Fox Theatre, the explosive 1-2 combination of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter was back in Boulder, Colorado, presumably under far cushier circumstances.

Four years later, Phantogram's sold-out show at the Boulder Theater was a major upgrade. This boisterous performance on Sept. 28 provided a massive-aggressive adrenaline rush for a Sunday night audience of primarily college-skewed thrill-seekers who needn't worry about work or pop quizzes on another blue Monday morning.

After lissome Lia Ices opened the festivities with a quietly functional set, the crowd -- excluding the unkempt urchin who did a full face-plant near the front of the stage -- was ready for access to excess.

Barthel (left) and Carter -- backed by touring members Nicholas Shelestak (guitars, keys, samples) and Chris Carhart (drums) -- delivered right away with (appropriately enough) "Nothing But Trouble." That was the first of nine tracks they would perform from Voices, Phantogram's superb sophomore studio full-length that peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 after its February release.

While the dizzying, over-the-top light show was sometimes hard to watch, the leggy Barthel, wearing black pumps and leather hot pants, was clearly the center of attention.

Her captivating presence and splendid soprano guided Phantogram through outstanding Voices tracks such as "The Day You Died," "Howling at the Moon" and "Fall in Love," the latter managing to rise above the EDM din as a lush throwback to mellower melodies.

There also was the aerobic dance instructor choreography on "Black Out Days," then "Don't Move," a cut from the 2011 Nightlife EP that must have had Barthel thinking ahead when she cried out, "I want to see everyone's hands in the air. Come on Denver!" referencing the next night's date at the Ogden Theatre.

Hardly anyone seemed to notice -- or care.

For a band that likes its sounds "low-fi" and its albums baring a slight nick or scratch, Phantogram doesn't mind allowing a few imperfections.

During a fearless journey, this daredevil duo is certainly capable of taking you high and low while moving through a divergent mix of sub-genres that spans electro-pop, hip-hop, rock 'n' soul and industrial-strength scrap metal driven by synthesizers, propulsive beats and Carter's churning guitar.

Barthel, ironically looking and sounding like St. Vincent while wearing a flowing robe and standing on a rotating pedestal for "Bill Murray" (the actor's new movie St. Vincent has nothing to do with Annie Clark's stage name, though) was sometimes betrayed by a muddled mix in which her vocals fought a losing battle with the surrounding sounds. But the beautiful guitar intro and outro made up for it on that particular song.

Phantogram's Sarah Barthel (left) and Josh Carter perform at the Boulder Theater.

The "psychic twins," as they have referred to themselves in the past, are versatile enough to play in a single-car garage or the vastness of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, where they're performing on the first two Sundays in October.

Carter, whose voice with an ethereal Peter Gabriel-like quality on "Turning Into Stone" turned out to make that early track with a rousing finish a surprising highlight, mostly let his guitar and samples speak for him, along with his affable and attractive musical partner.

"His nickname is Josh 'Mother-Fucking' Carter," Barthel happily exclaimed after "Fall in Love."

"The reason we call him Josh 'Mother-Fucking' Carter is because, obviously, he makes so many fuckin' dope beats. Like that last song. Josh, you fucking rule. I love you. We love you."

Carter's reply: "Thank you, everybody."

OK, so he isn't the most loquacious of Guitar Gods. But these recent thirty-somethings, who met in middle school through Barthel's older sister Becky in the Upstate New York town of Greenwich years before becoming band mates in 2007, seem to complement each other well as queen and king of the road warriors.

"We knew that we had a lot of different influences and we wanted to think differently instead of kind of flying in the trends that were happening when we first started," Barthel told Nic Harcourt on a recent episode of Guitar Center Sessions. Among the ones they cited were the Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, My Bloody Valentine, Prince, James Brown and -- for Barthel, who learned to play the piano at home and said she's "been singing my whole life" -- Beyonce.

Carter, a self-taught guitar player who started out as a drummer in a death metal band, decided when they gave birth to Phantogram to veer off from a scene that focused on "indie rock with the disco rhyhms" because they were "getting pretty sick of that kind of sound."

Originality intact, Phantogram will gladly take you anywhere you want to go.

Just fasten your seat belt and enjoy the bumpy ride.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Phantogram at the Boulder Theater on Sept. 28, 2014.

Set list
1. "Nothing But Trouble"
2. "Running From the Cops"
3. "As Far As I Can See"
4. "Black Out Days"
5. "Turning Into Stone
6. "Bad Dreams"
7. "Don't Move"
8."The Day You Died"
9. "Bill Murray"
10. "I Don't Blame You"
11. "Fall in Love"
12. "Howling at the Moon"
13. "When I'm Small"

1. "Mouth of Diamonds"
2. "Celebrating Nothing"

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