I came upon the tickets spontaneously—through a friend on Facebook with two tickets to a Phox show she tragically couldn’t use. I knew about the show, because I was familiar with Phox, but had decided previously that I didn’t care enough to go. Live shows are for college kids, I thought to myself. I’m 24. I’m old now. I have a bedtime. I pay for health insurance. I drink hot tea to prevent kidney stones. But these tickets were free, and I liked the group, so why not? I’ll be adventurous and push my bedtime past 8 p.m.
I was introduced to Phox a year ago, through a Youtube video of them performing “Slow Motion.” They were still relatively unknown outside of the mostly unspectacular Wisconsin music scene, at the time. All I knew was that they were from Baraboo—which is as quaint and sincerely Wisconsin as the name makes it seem; more so, even, then Eau Claire, home to our crowning jewel, Bon Iver. By sincerely Wisconsin I mean this: it’s rich with backwoods-pasty-beer-belly vibes and charming-small-town-brainy vibes, and everyone is very friendly. Somehow these places produce minds with the most incredible musical sensibilities.
Regardless, back to the video: it left me with the impression that they were a soft-spoken bunch, with a contemplative and quiet charm that matched the subtle tones of their music. Instantly crushed on the lead singer, Monica, by the way. There was no getting around that. She’s pretty, her voice hit my ears like sweatpants after a long day, and I have zero control of who my imagination dates, usually because he dates really nice people.
So, anyways, I went to the concert.
Gosh dang—standing! I had forgotten about standing. How could all these fragile bodies around me take it? I knew for certain that bespectacled man holding the beer and wearing tweed pants had never touched a weight, but he stood still as comfortably as a slump-shouldered statue. Something magical was happening, and I was a muggle caught in the middle of it. Ten minutes before Phox was to appear, and my feet ached something fierce. My energy had left before I even walked into the venue, unlike that pair that flirted in front of me. They had some serious energy. I really hoped they’d stop before the concert.
“I can’t wait for the fucking clarinet.” Said the girl, talking about “Slow Motion,” of course, because Phox is pretty much well known for that single song.
“What?” asked the guy.
“I can’t wait for the fucking clarinet.” She yelled it this time. I’m glad she kept the word “fucking” in there. How much longer until Phox comes on?
The High Noon Saloon was packed, the chatty crowd of New Glarus drinking hipsters all fell silent with anticipation, and Monica walked out onto the stage with a ukulele and began playing “Calico Man” all by herself. She has a siren’s voice, breathy and effervescently gliding from note to note. Most of Phox’s music is well-oiled, indie fun—“Calico Man” is the only song of theirs that chooses to haunt. With just the ukulele, Monica’s voice reverberated ghost-like around the room. I’m sure everyone in the room was thinking the same thing: no other voice could ever capture this song quite like hers (just like—this is an odd comparison—no voice can ever capture “Hallelujah” like Leonard Cohen’s).
Phox isn’t all about Monica, though. This isn’t like Paramore circa the Farro brother years, where Hayley Williams was the only interesting thing about their music. Phox makes good music, period, and the entire sextet matters to the tone, creativity, and surprise of their sound. Together they make a lively stage, and part of that is their strong friendship as a band. I had as much fun watching Monica as I did watching Matt Holmen accidentally run into his guitar and start mock fighting it, to no watching eyes but my own.
Now, my impression of Phox was that they were quiet and soft-spoken and irrevocably indie. But the moment Monica thanked the audience for providing the gift of “brown water,” which she cradled like a child and sipped from the entire concert, I had a feeling she was not the quiet, doe-eyed creature I had imaginarily dated. She was not quiet at all. She word-vomited constantly—about her mom, who was at the concert drinking at the bar (“That’s how I was made!”), about home life (“Fuck grandma”), about J.E. Sunde (“He is a GOD”), about her past (“Without these guys I’d probably still be playing Tetris and smoking weed”). I was startled at first, given how thoughtful her lyrics are. Then, I reflected on a moment earlier that day when I transitioned from laughing about a fart to wondering about hedonistic philosophy’s validity. Thoughtfulness isn’t contrary to goofball-ness, I supposed.
The fun of seeing Phox live isn’t just in their music, but in their general on-stage chemistry. I mean, Monica wasn’t the only one drinking brown water. That thing had made rounds around the stage several times before the end of the show. One member wondered out loud how he was going to sing “Garden of Night,” a past song of his that Phox was about to play, because he was so sauced. He played through the song perfectly, of course, but after singing the first verse muttered, “this is so fucking corny.” They all laughed and kept playing, and you could almost see traces of their high school selves up there, just having fun, performing marvelous tunes with jealousy-invoking ease.
We were partway through “Slow Motion,” and getting close to hearing that fucking clarinet. The moment comes and—oh, not a clarinet today. A trumpet. Does my flirty friend like the trumpet?
I know what she meant about that clarinet though; when it comes in, it’s transcendent. It’s like hearing sage wisdom—you shut up and you pay attention because it’s important. The trumpet couldn’t quite match that soft, loon sound, but it didn’t ruin the moment either.
Phox, the collection of semi-alcoholic wonders that can’t stop giggling in the midst of their impending fame, didn’t match the image of them I had conjured up from that video. I didn’t get that quiet folk concert of bearded people in plaid pontificating between songs—I got concert full of sincerely Wisconsin Barabooans.
Their tour is over (in the States), but their music is just as tasty as ever. Find out more about them here.
Will Montei is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Teaching at Seattle Pacific University. He has been writing for the post calvin since it began in 2013.