A burning thing
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Unlike a lot of songwriters just shaking off the indie label in favor of a less inclusive classification, Phosphorescent, the nom de plume of Matthew Houck, doesn’t go to any great lengths to hide his influences. Five years ago, he released To Willie, an entire album of adoringly reshaped Willie Nelson tunes from his more obscure and underappreciated catalog, and just a week ago he dug up Bob Dylan’s heavy-hearted ballad “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” for one of those maligned Starbucks compilations.
On Jan. 24 during his sole North Carolina stop at Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre, he gave a minimalist rendering of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” its chorus looped and his natural voice joining with the few hundred singing along to create a resonant harmony while his six-piece backing unit dropped out entirely. He wasn’t exactly burrowing deeper into his influences, but that reveal was more purposeful — he might soon be growing out of rooms this size.
After a dozen years and six LPs, he’s evolved from being a patient and poetic bedroom country crooner into a performer whose visual and aural offerings have become the very mirror of his moniker. There’s no doubt that his 2013 standout Muchacho was his breakout; its songs glow with an aching magnificence that found corporality in the vases of white daisies and peonies that covered the stage. Tall white candles (with electronic wicks — safety first) haphazardly adorned the stage’s perimeter and the tops of amps. The room was allowed to fill with the scent of Nag Champa before the house lights dropped and the curtain pulled back to reveal a 15-foot backdrop of gold tinsel as Muchacho’s opening supplication “Sun, Arise!” played, the candles’ scant light glinting off of them as his six-piece backing unit emerged.
Them came Houck, sporting the same gorgeously embroidered white charro greca suit and cowboy hat he wore in the video for “Ride On/Right On,” a smile as wide as the prairie, and the most garish, glitter-covered Chelsea riding boots you ever did see. He was the picture of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” and his scenery was like a ’70s-style country disco somewhere out in La Paz where American cultural phenomenon is twisted into a weird, authentic hybrid.
But it was a stunning vehicle for songs that seemed to come to life through him rather than because of him, like Dylan once said about his Blond On Blonde era. The comparisons to Dylan’s work with the Band seemed even more appropriate; keyboardists Scott Stapleton and a pregnant Jo Schornikow served the Garth Hudson/ Richard Manuel roles, one the placid ambient bed and the other a honky-tonk hurricane.
The set was a 3:1 mix of Muchacho to older material, but more attention was paid to ebb and flow. Muchacho’s dusty epic “The Quotidian Beasts” quelled into the plaintive “Terror In the Canyons.” When the jacket and hat came off, it was the propulsive rocker “Ride On/Right On” and its carefully deployed quiver of “woos” bleeding into the throbbing, ambient beauty of “Song for Zula,” the song singled out as the one that got him over the hump. “Some say love is a burning thing/ And it makes a fiery ring,” he sang with a soft decay that seemed to reverberate even longer than on record, and with that line, revealing yet another influence. !