Polar vortex be damned! Ticketholders of a Caveman/Phosphorescent lineup wouldn't let a little thing like frigid air stop them. They would, however, stay in their heated cars for 40 minutes rather than stake a claim in line outside Firebird. Tour bus issues and, I hear tell, some sort of equipment malfunction kept the doors from opening at the designated time and pushed the start of the show back by a half hour.
Starting a show so late can be an awkward thing to navigate because you know you are facing a crowd that might be just a skosh grumpy and, in this case, frozen. But an opening band's purpose is to warm up a crowd, and Caveman came to build a fire. Our blood thawed and the band got our hearts pumping to the steady rhythm of its captivating drumbeats. The passionate, percussive delivery of "Where's the Time" was where its set really shot off sparks and burned on through the final song.
Prior to Phosphorescent claiming the stage, part of the crew began bedecking the space with faux white flowers and real white candles as well as some pretty potent incense. Thanks to that and the gal in front of me who'd obviously just eaten, all of Firebird smelled like Nag Champa and everything bagels.
The stage darkened and the pre-recorded "Sun Arises (An Invocation/An Introduction)" began to play. It wasn't until later in the set that I really realized the appropriateness of this title as a beginning for the set of songs on the 2013 album "Muchacho" and for a performance that was both radiant and spiritual. That said, I must admit that when Matthew Houck came onstage in a simple T-shirt and jeans I was a tad disappointed. I was hoping for the snow white, bedazzled cowboy suit I've seen pictures of him wearing on this tour.
It didn't matter really. He could sing in a clown onesie, cutoffs or a three piece Armani and fill a room with the same presence and command. Suit or no, Houck is a cowboy sage. He paces the stage with a mike chord slung over a shoulder, pointing a finger or lifting a palm to strengthen a detail, growling and yipping, raspy voice phrasing his emotions masterfully and ministering through song. I do not mean in a religious or even secular sort of way. Phosphorescent songs have less to do with God, though that unknowable presence makes itself known from time to time, and more to do with the trials and tribulations of being human. I'm sure Houck is just as screwed up as the rest of us mere mortals; however, he's sucked a little more wisdom out of the marrow of life than most.
The set was weighted with songs from the latest album, and of course the ballad that put all other 2013 songs to shame, "Song For Zula," made an appearance. For this listener, the true standouts were two older songs, both from 2007's "Pride" and both played sans band, back to back, with Houck on guitar center stage. "My Dove, My Lamb" was gutting, sensual and sweet. The singer had the juju to entrance a jam-packed Firebird crowd into the quietest audience, for the longest amount of time, I have ever witnessed. It was magic.
The spell he cast grew in strength with "Wolves," which was brought to completion with a looping segment of Houck repeating the final line, "to wait 'til those wolves make nice." The line layered upon itself sweetly at first and then, through Houck's manipulations, grew more ferocious; it became howling, growling and menacing.
To cap off the encore, the band returned and turned the two-minute "At Death, A Proclamation" into an extended jam session. I tell you, it's serious business when one man is shaking five maracas at a time. The band blew it up, one last blast of warmth before we all had to head back out into the glacial night.
Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction) - pre-recorded
The Quotidian Beasts
Terror in the Canyons
Down to Go
A Picture of Our Torn up Praise
Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)
Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)
Song for Zula
Ride On/Right On
My Dove, My Lamb
Joe Tex, These Taming Blues
At Death, A Proclamation