Country, in all its various guises, is a music so deeply rooted in tradition it can be hard to step too far outside the mold. Mathew Houck, the singer songwriter who is the sole constant member of Phosphorescent, has joined the ranks of indie bands like Wilco, Lambchop and Calexico that have managed to flip the script and produce something new an unexpected.
His latest album, this year’s highly praised “Muchacho,” is the culmination of years of experimentation, from 2007’s abstract, haunting “Pride” to 2010’s playing-it-straight barnburner “Here’s to Taking it Easy” and 2009’s collection of Willie Nelson covers “To Willie.” The new record presents a similar take on country music as My Morning Jacket’s mid-2000s classic “Z” did on southern rock, bathing it in lush atmospherics and subtle electronic flourishes.
Performing an album like “Muchacho” live — which relies on atmosphere and studio trickery for a good deal of its appeal — can be a tall order. However, at the core of all of Phosphorescent’s experimentations are Houck’s excellent songs, equal parts swagger and pain, and these came through loud and clear Sunday night at the Bluebird Theater.
Without the layers of reverb and synths that defined “Muchacho,” Houck’s fragile, quavering voice took center stage, delivering his songs with a playful intensity that captivated the room. His crack band, featuring dueling keyboards, pedal steel, two guitars, bass, drums and percussion provided a rollicking backbeat, turning even Phosphorescent’s mellower tunes into country-rock stompers with driving force.
However, the show’s most impressive moment came when Houck took the stage by himself. Giving the band a break, he commanded the audience’s attention with a trio of songs that included a cover of John Prine’s classic “Far From Me” and the “Muchacho” highlight “Muchacho’s Tune.” He wrapped it up with a haunting take on the Pride cut “Wolves,” building a towering soundscape out of the song’s final chorus bit by bit with only the use of his voice and a looping pedal. It just goes to show; you can add all the bells and whistles in the world, but at the heart of every good country tune is a good song and a singer who means it.
Jonathan Gang is a Boulder-based writer and a regular contributor to Reverb.