Originally published with Smile Politely on February 23, 2015.
Any show that kicks off with the band gathering center stage for a pre-game huddle is going to be something different. Granted, there isn’t necessarily loads of backstage space at The Highdive to deal in what, for most bands, would be a private pre-show moment. But moving it to the limelight was an interesting choice for PHOX, one that reflected the rampant friendship between members Monica Martin (vocals), Zach Johnston (guitar/banjo), Matteo Roberts (keys), Davey Roberts (drums), Jason Krunnfusz (drums), and Matthew Holmen (guitar).
PHOX exudes a modern-day Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs vibe, if Snow White only knew five other dwarfs, and they weren’t actually dwarfs but adept musicians of normal height. They’re family in the way family means something, because it’s a choice not a birthright.
With their hands in the center, coming together in a cheer as if they were about to take the field and play the big homecoming game, PHOX congregated before a packed house. And play, they did.
PHOX opened with “Calico Man,” which on their debut self-titled album is a quiet, haunting song that Martin sings accompanied only by Krunnfusz’s dedicated bass line. Instead of this somber tone, Matteo Roberts accompanied Martin on keys, lightening the overall feel and setting the stage for what would be a show equal parts emotive and fun: a difficult dynamic to pull off.
After launching their set with three songs off the album, PHOX shared a song that didn’t make the initial cut, “Never Lover.” In what can only be described as Caribbean forest rock (a mixture of Bohemian beach and Midwestern landscape), the song showcased the band’s playful tempo choices with an added recorder to give it a Calypso feel. Genres may try to encapsulate what it is PHOX does, but thus far the band finds ways around those restrictions. It’s not that their songs break the rules, but they blend differing tonal elements to create something fresh. It’s what makes listening so much fun.
Switching directions from a full band sound, PHOX gathered around two mics center stage to play a handful of songs how, as Martin explained, they originally came together: acoustically. The addition of a mandolin and banjo gave “1936” and “Kingfisher” a bluegrass feel fully realized with Matteo Roberts and Krunnfusz adding harmonies to Martin’s notable lead vocals.
If you’ve gotten the chance to listen to PHOX’s album then you understand that Martin’s voice is part of the band’s overall appeal. PHOX’s syncopated rhythms, instrumental mélange and vivid melodies put this band on the forefront of the folk-pop scene, but it’s Martin’s voice that really renders them something different. It’s a voice as soothing as it is stunning, a siren’s call to self-reflective waters.
Martin channeled Amy Winehouse replete with the singer’s famous beehive hair and cat eye makeup, but in a decidedly friendlier and less destructive manner than Winehouse herself. The singer’s sweet patter in between songs revealed a good-natured songwriter who ribs the other band members, as well as her own predilection for writing songs focused on “assholes” and heartbreak.
That good-natured presence came across in every member of PHOX. How can you not appreciate the fun they clearly have onstage, especially when Krunnfusz, Holmen, and Davey Roberts broke into The Meters’ classic song, “Cissy Strut,” while killing time for Martin to set up on the ukulele? Or when Holmen stood off to the side with his hand over the heart, pledging allegiance to music, as Martin played that ukulele and sang the set’s second to last song. They’re doing what they enjoy, which makes all the difference watching the band perform live. “I can’t believe I get to do this for a job,” Martin told the audience. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work they go.