Dark times behind, Phosphorescent shines
CAMBRIDGE — Most likely, Matthew Houck didn’t have theft literally in mind when he eased into “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly),’’ a softly wry rumination on love and the second of a half-dozen songs he reeled off in a row from his most recent album, “Here’s to Taking It Easy.’’
Still, like most of the music Houck conjures as Phosphorescent — the moniker he uses as both a solo artist and when he’s joined by his sympathetically supple crew of enablers, as he was Sunday evening downstairs at the Middle East — the tune was freighted with a fretful sweetness, the poetic suggestion of something more.
The song’s title, both proper and parenthetical, was striking for how prophetic it sounded on this, the last night of Phosphorescent’s six-week US tour — a trek that may very well not have even had the chance to happen in the first place. In an all-too familiar tale that usually turns out badly, Phosphorescent had its van — with all of the gear inside it — stolen after their very first show in New York City last month. By the time police recovered (!) the vehicle, contents miraculously still inside and intact, an outpouring of fans and friends had already sent money to help the band replenish the precious lost equipment, ease the heartbreak, and push on.
Perhaps that’s why Phosphorescent’s 80-minute set felt and sounded like such a rapturous daze — a celebration that reverberated with relief, release, and a sense of hard-won triumph over tribulations, both real and those that beat like a dark heart inside songs like “Los Angeles.’’ “The road is alive with all the trouble and fear,’’ Houck sang amid the hazy sway of melody as a magnificent sprawl of pedal steel guitar and piano wrapped around him, “They called me colored and queer/ But I looked in their eyes/ Said I ain’t come to Los Angeles, babe/ to die.’’’
Even the ramshackle rave-up of a road song that opened the show, “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama),’’ seemed a statement of purpose.
Against Houck’s affably groggy vocal (the creakiness setting in), a whirlwind of guitars, keyboards, and drums, chugged on and charged gleefully ahead, gulping the days and the miles like a country-rock caravan. The message was clear enough: press on, no matter how numbing the road, with as much of a joyful racket as you can muster.
Fleet Foxes drummer-cum-singer-songwriter J. Tillman, one of the night’s two openers, delivered a compelling set of slow-paced, starkly haunted sketches that were as rooted in poetic melancholy as they were built on skeletal chords and Tillman’s water-well clear voice. The Boston-based Boy Without God opened the show with a set of songs that was at once moody and richly literate.
Jonathan Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.