When you work in music, and you listen to thousands of bands and go to hundreds of shows, there’s an inherently sad thing that can happen. At some point, there’s this neutralization effect in which every new band becomes the same level of “good.” Pleasant enough to listen to while you’re working, driving, or getting ready in the morning. Or a nice night out at a concert, as an alternative to staying in and watching TV — but absent is that special spark that stirs something deep inside of your core, the spark that pushed you into this all-consuming world of music in the first place.
So when you have an experience that reignites the spark, it takes you completely by surprise, punching you in the gut as a visceral reminder of the role that music plays in your life. The steel hit the flint for me this past Saturday during Phantogram’s set at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival. The sun had just set, and there was a damp chill in the air, with a thin layer of mist hovering above a throng of festival-goers who were bundled up in hoodies and thick coats. Looking out beyond the stage, the bay was like a sheet of jet black satin, rippling gently with the reflection of a twinkling night time cityscape.
The scratchy opening beat of “When I’m Small” began to resonate across the audience, Josh Carter’s somber, yet grooving guitar work elegantly intertwined with Sarah Barthel’s airy vocalizations of “oh, oh, oh, oh.” There’s an almost unearthly, completely mesmerizing duality to her voice; delicate, yet commanding as she sings, “Take me underground/take me all the way/bring me to the fire/throw me in the flames.”
Suddenly out of nowhere, a swarm of artificial, glowing white jellyfish floats through the crowd, completing the mystical atmosphere that Phantogram has conjured in the span of less than an hour. Every single layer of sound swells into an all-consuming moment of pure sonic bliss at the song’s climax, Barthel pulling at your heartstrings and clawing at your soul as she mournfully declares, “I’d rather die/I’d rather die than to be with you.” And in that one single moment, everything is perfect.