The band, a group of funny and welcoming southerners who’d relocated to Brooklyn around the same time, gave me a lift to the venue, The Middle East in Cambridge from their in-studio at Emerson College’s radio station. The staff informed them as they unloaded that their set had been pushed to midnight. The bill was full. Paper Birds, a shoegazer band from the area with a crush on David Bowie, went first. Sounding like Low meets Band of Horses, their half hour set passed neatly. Cambridge based crooner Ryan Lee Crosby filled the small room with his uncomfortably specific songs of lovemaking through his Lou Reed-esque nasal voice. When Carter Tanton from the band Tulsa took the stage, I was elated, if sleepy. It was roughly 11:00 when Tanton took the stage and Jeff Bailey, the bass player looked ready for a nap; he wasn’t alone there. Not having expected Tanton, another Cambridge based singer-songwriter who cut his teeth busking in the New York Subway, I was pleased to see him perform again. Tanton’s voice seems flush with natural reverb no matter the setting. Switching between the silky softness of Tulsa songs and his solo material, Tanton captivated everyone in the room, including most of Phosphorescent. When he picked up a banjo, he really shined; his voice seemed to come from some place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, complimented by the haunting timbre of his banjo strings. Tanton is not a voice to be missed. Of course, when Matthew Houck began singing 10 minutes later, it was a whole different ballgame.
Originally from Atlanta, GA Houck has garnered a pretty astonishing critical reputation in the last three years. Since the release of Phosphorescent’s third record Pride, journalists have been lavishing him with praise and superlatives waiting for his next move. When he announced that his band would be releasing a Willie Nelson cover record, the buzz wasn’t exactly overwhelming. Perhaps that’s because the music press hadn’t heard the band play the material from To Willie live. When Houck recorded To Willie he brought on some of his friends and then kept them for the tour. Guitarists Jesse Anderson Ainslie and Dan Weber, bassist Bailey, pianist Scott Stapleton, and drummer Chris Marine turned the songs from Houck’s early records into real rock songs, the kind your dad listens to and that you always wished you knew how to. With it’s roots in the south and current home in Brooklyn, Phosphorescent sound like Grizzly Bear playing Emmylou Harris on a regular day, and with the chugging energy of the Willie Nelson tunes to propel them, they’ve become a beautiful maelstrom.
Their first song, “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise” started their full-band reimangining of Houck’s best solo material. Stellar run-throughs of “Praise”, “Wolves”, “At Death, A Proclamation”, all from 2007’s Pride made up the first part of their set, and though Houck’s songs sounded huge and intense thanks to his band, they seemed almost small when the band started up the Willie Nelson songs. It’s no secret that Houck’s voice is one of the most compelling in modern rock, but you really don’t get it until you’ve heard him in person. Backed by the harmony of Ainslee, Bailey, and Stapleton, Houck’s voice roars out, never cracking, never wavering, stunning the audience. Phosphorescent ran through a handful of Willie Nelson songs, “Reasons to Quit,” “I Gotta Get Drunk,” and “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” and there was much dancing, drinking and merriment. Marine’s drums and Bailey’s bass tuck the songs into an unshakable groove; Weber and Ainslee take turns leading, and Scott Stapleton’s piano is never at rest. With the combined harmony of his three band mates and a full sound people typically take for granted, Houck went from introverted songsmith to convulsing rockstar, carried away as he let out one soulful howl after another; he never seemed to run out of breath, spurred on by some unseen force. Having seen Willie Nelson live, I can say that Houck is both a worthy adversary to the old rebel though he’d never admit it and a sonic descendent rife to step up and take over where our country giants left off.
After a few perfect songs from To Willie they returned to their own songs, giving heartfelt iterations of early Phos tracks “I Am A Full Grown Man,” “Joe Tex Blues,” “(South Of) America,” and “Cocaine Lights”. By now it was 1 in the morning, and the fatigue that seemed ready to take hold of both band and audience was long gone. The encore came and Matthew Houck had a rowdy glint in his eye. “We’re open to all forms of flattery. We could just keep doing this.” And so as the audience let them have it, they went right back to the Willie covers. “Pick Up The Tempo,” “Permanently Lonely,” and “Too Sick To Pray,” got everyone feeling sentimental, but it was the last song that made this a show no one would forget. Houck’s full-throated whisper started “The Party’s Over” and his three harmonizers were quick to follow. Nelson’s words through Houck’s throat rang out like the hopeful, drunken promise of a better tomorrow, “Turn out the lights, the party's over,”
Houck’s band goes wild, taking the rhythm all over the place; Ainslee and Weber trade licks like a couple of Storyville bluesmen; Stapleton pounds the keys like his life depends on it; Marine and Bailey anchor the song while still going hogwild. “They say that all good things must end.” Houck lets the band play on while he leaps off the stage, finds his girlfriend in the audience and he takes her dancing on the crowded beer stained floor of the middle east; his boots and her blonde hair whipping about like the limbs of a black alder tree caught in a hurricane. “Put out the light, the party’s over,” The band seems unwilling to let the groove come to an end even though everyone knows it can’t last forever. Finally things slow, Marine puts a few extra snare drops in, Houck and his lady stop their dance. “And tomorrow we’ll start the same old thing again."