Photo Credit: Dania Ismadi

Last Thursday, indie-folk singer/ songwriter Matthew Houck, who goes by the moniker Phosphorescent took the stage at Toronto’s intimate Mod Club. As I walked into the club, I realized I had underestimated Toronto’s indie scene. Half an hour before the opening act and the club was already bustling. It was only to get busier. There was no shortage of couples, plaid, and beards in the crowd that gathered to see Phosphorescent, all of whom glanced expectantly towards the stage every now and then. The stage is on one end with a bar adjacent to it, and booths could be found on the other side. The minimal lighting from the chandeliers that were suspended from above created a cozy feel. With no distance between the pit and the stage, people rested their arms and drinks on the edge of the stage before the show began. Though doors opened at eight, Liz Cooper and The Stampede didn’t come on until nine, giving the audience enough time to have a drink or two, socialize, and appreciate their vibrant and jovial set. When Liz Cooper and her bandmates nonchalantly took the stage, I noticed the floral pattern adorning their bass drum was the same pattern as Liz’s jumpsuit. Their colourful set was accompanied by little stuffies of Garfield littering the stage, an enigmatic quirk fitting their ‘dream folk psychedelic rock’ genre as they like to call it.


They captured the audience’s attention with a tune that created the perfect atmosphere to sway slightly while holding your amour’s hands. Then, proceeded to play songs from their 2018 release Window Flowers. The chemistry their band shared was captivating. The bassist, Grant Prettyman, often swaggered his way across the stage to share the mic with Liz who playfully strummed his guitar and even sultrily put her finger on his lips as he sang the background vocals. During their last song, Liz pulled out the tambourine, shaking it from time to time as she still managed to play her electric guitar. She tossed it to Grant who attempted to catch it around his foot while still playing his guitar. Though he missed, the crowd still cheered loudly. After these antics, they concluded with an upbeat track and grateful remarks to Toronto leaving the crowd perfectly primed for what Phosphorescent was about to deliver.


Within half an hour, Liz Cooper and The Stampede’s stage set had been replaced with a more simplistic set, comprising only of a large neon sign that spelled out the title of their latest album, C’est La Vie. It was fitting that this loomed over the entire performance as this french saying, translating to ‘that is life’, encapsulates the theme of Houck’s recent work. It summarizes the attitude he’s adopted towards his own life, especially in lieu of the recent unexpected turns his life has taken. In the 5 years since his last album, he’s traded New York for Nashville, got married, had two children, hand built his own studio, and nearly died from meningitis. C’est La Vie is born out of this. It has a lot of ground to cover, yet the album is coherent, tender, and dazzling. I was curious how his performance might reflect the new mood of his music.

 

Around 10:15 pm, their track “Black Moon / Silver Waves” heralded the touring band members filtering into the stage, positioning themselves in a crescent moon. Houck, entered last — his guitar in one hand and a beer in the other. Though most of the crowd consisted of men who were in their late twenties and others who were even older, that didn’t stop them from fangirling hard and cheering loudly when he took his leather jacket off, revealing a T-shirt with the band’s name printed on it. His bandmates either wore Phosphorescent merch or plaid. With their set and attire alone, they developed a folky aesthetic. By merely looking at them, you would’ve presumed you were at a local prairie bar rather than Toronto.


With barely any words uttered, they kickstarted the show with their most lively song “New Birth in New England”. The anticipation had been building, so people immediately began clapping and grooving. It was evident as the performance continued that the audience largely trended towards long time fans who sang along to almost all the songs. As Houck languidly paced from one side of the stage to the other, he took the audience from one side of the emotional spectrum to the other. He juxtaposed his upbeat songs with more contemplative ones that grounded the performance. He had you dancing one moment, and wanting to weep in the other. The music was loud, but you couldn’t miss his deeply personal lyrics. Houck’s success lies in coalescing these complex emotions, distilling them into a story that can be told with lyrics and melodies. This ability is epitomized in “My Beautiful Boy”, an ode to his son.


Roughly around 11:10 pm, Houck took a moment to thank the audience and his six bandmates. The latter took a bow, and left the stage, hinting at the inevitable end of the concert. We were left with the spotlight solely on Houck. He began his solo performance of his latest hit “C’est la vie no. 2.” His voice grew raspy and fragile yet remained raw. He meandered through the verse to the chorus, singing “C’est la vie, she say / But I don’t know what she means”. This powerful lyric makes you reminisce all those times a lover said something that left you wondering what they meant, even if it wasn’t in another language. It echoes the potential for love to be ambiguous, sometimes painfully so. He took a pause after this song and attempted to announce his next solo song but seemed to forget the title until a fan shouted it out. “Los Angeles” was the title on the tip of his tongue. The audience joined in on this one, which made this performance more soulful and arguably better than the recording.


His bandmates came back on stage for an encore. They played their most popular track, “Song for Zula”, which has appeared in multiple movies such as The Vow and Limitless. For this number, Houck climbed into the audience. It was endearing and slightly comical watching grown men hugging him and belting out “Some say love is a burning thing / that it makes a fiery ring” heartfully and nearly in tears. Houck weaved through the audience to the centre of the floor performing the rest of the song while slow dancing with a fan. He made his way back to the main stage for their finale “Ride on / Right on”. Though the concert ended on a high note, I was imbued with Phosphorescent’s mellow and contemplative vibe. While walking out of the concert, I expected to walk out into an open field, somewhere to call out my lover’s name. Instead, I had to settle for crisp air and streetcars zooming by. But I guess c’est la vie.

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