Angus Sharpe is in London to watch Phosphorescent turn in a mixed performance at the end of a long tour promoting his latest album, Muchacho.
Matthew Houck arrives at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire tonight approaching the end of a tour which began in March. Doubtless he’s tired, but tonight’s show is apparently a bit special. “I’ve known about this venue my whole life. I’ve always wanted to play it, so thank you.” Sounds a little suspect, but given that during Houck’s childhood the Empire was BBC owned and occupied, he can have the benefit of the doubt. Only because I like the idea of a six year old Phosphorescent glued to episodes of Wogan and vowing that, one day, he would get there.
He has his latest album to thank that he is. The very fine Muchacho came out in late March, preceded by floaty-light single ‘Song For Zula’, to a lot of stars and compliments for its blend of americana and electropop. Also, to a short stay in the outskirts of the UK and US charts, a first in Houck’s six LP career.
It’s not quite enough to fill this place, though. To my inquiry about whether the show was sold out, a bouncer smile-laughed, “Naaah.” Such slow sales often punish the support more than the headliner. Ticketholders turn up later to shows which lack that stamp of exclusivity. So it goes for Caveman, a New York fivesome, who do their best to warm up those securing a front row position for the main act.
‘Muchacho’ is basically Spanish for ‘young buck’ and when Matthew Houck moseys on, all in white, his suit complete with embroidered jeans, cowboy hat and bolero jacket, he looks the part, like a Las Vegas matador. All the more disappointing, then, that the opening songs lack a similar strut. ‘The Quotidian Beasts’, whose recorded version yawns, stretches and tumbles in and out of a messy, crowded chorus for seven minutes, ends up trotting obdediently behind an over-pronounced drum line.
The band, arranged in a semicircle around Houck, struggle like this during tonight’s early stages. The reason why is not entirely clear. Perhaps you don’t know what you’re missing till it’s been found. As it is on ‘Ride On/Right On’, the first song to sound as confident as Houck looks.
The mystery line along which the live tracks flourish or founder is revealed, as the stage empties of all but Houck, to be exactly that, confidence. Phosphorescent’s music is aching, romantic and oh so sincere. Playing it with anything other than full beans will underwhelm. And so Houck turns to a keyboard for a staccato’d and coy ‘Muchacho’s Tune’, which tip-toes towards us when it should really wash over.
But we are immediately treated to the other side of the coin. For ‘Cocaine Lights’, from 2007’s Pride, Houck recreates the woozy, choral outro by looping his voice, each layer with more licence and less tone than the last, until he slides off stage beneath the fog of his own howling, exhausted, fantastic and earnest.
The encore gives audience members the chance to return the energy in the call and response of fan-favourite, ‘Los Angeles’, a strong end to a mixed bag of a set. It maybe that lengthy touring has dullened Houck’s passion for Muchacho, whose contributions tonight were below par. It would be a shame, given the quality of which the older songs prove him capable.