The old guy standing next to me at the concert last night wouldn’t stop talking about the stage decorations the roadies were bringing out. “Flowers? What are those, lilacs?” While an old guy at a concert is usually out of place, I didn’t get that feeling as we waited for Matthew Houck and his band to come on stage. “Candles, neat.” Perhaps that’s because Houck’s music has a sort of timeless quality to it – not transported from another time, but more left underground and discovered years later by dust-covered archaeologists. “Oh, incense, this oughta be a great show.”
Houck plays with a band of six – organ, piano, pedal steel, drums, bass, miscellaneous percussion (a fistful of maracas and a tambourine). His band surrounds him in a semicircle, a setup which makes Houck seem like he’s standing on an altar. He wore a white suit with gold trim, and on the back of his jacket beamed a golden eagle. A tattered cowboy hat sat atop his head. The clothes could have been ridiculous on another, but they suited Houck just fine, like he’d been wearing them his whole life. That notion added to the humor when a fan shouted “I like your outfit!” and Houck responded “What, this old thing?”
Phosphorescent’s most recent album, Muchacho, is a masterpiece. A work of indescribable genre that transports the listener to wild expanse of the American southwest without sounding a whole lot like country music. Houck’s influences are clear (he’s recorded an entire Willie Nelson tribute album) but his music is unlike that of his ancestors or contemporaries. His lyrics are as pregnant as his organist (7 months maybe) and his voice is earnest and weak. The Alabama native is over 30 years old now, and his songs sound like they’ve been dragged through the dust and soil for just as long, but they’ve come out on the other side more beautiful.
The first part of the set felt like an alternate universe ho-down. The glittery backdrop, the flowers, the candles, the clothes, were all reminiscent of a 1950’s Las Vegas casino, or maybe a wild-west new mexico saloon. I felt alternately compelled to square dance or put my arms around the strangers next to me and sway. Things got really wonderful, however, when Houck stripped the hat and jacket and performed “Song for Zula,” one of the most emotionally charged tracks from Muchacho. Afterwards, he dismissed his band, and began a short set which was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on stage.
After a solo piano version of “Muchacho’s Tune,” Houck donned his guitar and played a song from that Willie Nelson album, a version of “Can I sleep in your arms.” The audience was entranced, and I felt strangely connected to my fellow concert-goers, the way you feel connected to your bunkmates sitting around a bonfire at summer camp. The song ends with Houck humming the melody, and he spoke softly into the microphone “Do you guys wanna do this? Let’s do this.” Everyone knew what he meant. We all hummed with him, and the sold-out Sinclair filled with the voices of 500 winter weary and wanderlust-laden Bostonians. Houck followed up with a stripped-down version of “Wolves” from his 2007 album Pride, which ended in a crescendo of looped vocals that had me (and I’m sure many others) close to tears.
The band came out for an encore, a pleasant ending to a beautiful evening, and evening so warm and lovely that not even the impending snow could get us down. Phosphorescent manages to capture a spirit that is so elusive, some refuse to believe it exists. The American spirit – not the proud and pompous one, but the self-reflective one, the spirit of the quiet cowboy.