Review of Foxygen @ Webster Hall | 10/9/14
The first time I saw Foxygen was at a music festival in the summer of 2013. They were a buzz band at the time, having released the intensely-named We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic—their extremely Californian millennial classic rock album—earlier in the year. I was all about the buzz and eagerly awaited their set.
But it turned out Foxygen was experiencing some kind of turbulence: erratic behavior on and off stage, a meltdown at SXSW, a European tour cancelled to “preserve the creative health of the band.” They were just getting started, but seemed to be struggling. I left their festival set slightly disappointed—they came on late and left after just a few songs, most of which involved singer Sam France spending more time lying on the stage, climbing on speaker towers, and wrapping the microphone cord around his neck than singing. (France would fracture his leg while performing later that summer, prompting more cancelled dates.) Was this set another indicator of a band in shambles, or was being subversive the point of their act? Who knows.
Regardless, I wanted to root for Foxygen. Some good news came this year: the band is releasing a new double album, …And Star Power. A week before its release, they made two tour stops in New York—one in Brooklyn, and one at Manhattan’s Webster Hall. Foxygen’s keyboardist and songwriter Jonathan Rado still referred to the Webster crowd as “Brooklyn,” but no one seemed to mind.
A year removed from the strife, it seems that Foxygen has perfected its balance between chaos and coherence. The group dramatically bounded onstage to a song from the new album, “How Can You Really,” with a trio of backup singers-slash-dancers in glittery dresses kicking their legs like hipster cheerleaders. The song’s mellow soft-rock ’60s vibe only lasted a few minutes before the experience of “On Blue Mountain” occurred. Arguably one of the best songs on We are the 21st…—with the flamboyance of a Broadway musical and the spirit of Haight-Ashbury—the crowd fist-pumped and jumped, causing the floor to shake.
Just two songs in, Foxygen 2014 was noticeably more coordinated than Foxygen 2013, but its signature tumultuousness was not toned down whatsoever. France, a performer if there ever was one, is the main source of the on-stage craziness. Standing still for more than one second is not a thing he does. With his eyes shadowed in dark makeup, long scraggly hair bleached, wearing a star pendant around his neck and no shirt underneath an unbuttoned blazer, he vacillates between Mick Jagger moves and Iggy Pop punk swagger.
Last year’s injury and a current wrist brace haven’t slowed France down in the slightest: he spent the majority of the 60-minute set climbing on and off the monitors lining the edge of the crowd and tripping over himself and his mic stand. He did the cord-around-the-neck move too many times to count. He jumped into the crowd multiple times. He shed his top and swiveled his hips suggestively. His obscenely low-rise skinny jeans were probably the smallest size worn at the venue. His singing randomly broke into screaming, including an ear-splitting moment when he and the backup singers all let out blood-curdling yells at the start of a song.
The crowd was totally riled up by France’s behavior. To the soundtrack of a pounding punk rock tune, some crowd surfers made their way to the front of the pit. During the trippy title track of their previous album, likeminded loose cannon Mac DeMarco—who sat in on drums for opener Juan Wauters—randomly appeared and did a stage dive into the incredibly excited audience. Everyone clamored to see where he landed, pointing him out to friends.
Foxygen generally spends their time switching between two modes: punk rock and classic rock. The punk element doesn’t surface much on their very retro-spirited albums, but it suits their live shows—and France’s borderline masochistic performance style—perhaps better than the 70s vibe on their albums. They’re meant to be the type of band that plays unhinged, high-energy club shows, not chilled-out daytime festivals. They seemed to be way more comfortable in this role, probably because it’s the one that comes most naturally to them.
Foxygen muted the craziness a bit, though, for “Shuggie,” a Motown-showtune song that references a girl who wears rhinoceros-shaped earrings. The backup singers helped take this one to a higher level than if France were singing it by himself, giving the song greater essence of drama that complimented his own. (Side note: a shoutout to the singers is necessary, because their choreography was seriously intense and they still managed to sing really well while also smiling the entire time.)
After a bit more stalking around by France, who thrilled the crowd by leaning off the edge of the stage and staring like a maniac, the band left the stage for just a moment and returned for a two-song encore. The Rolling Stones-emulating “No Destruction” saw the crowd singing one line louder than any other that night: “There’s no need to be an asshole / You’re not in Brooklyn anymore.” France undulated in unison with the dancers and then that was it. The same crazy Foxygen they’ve always been—just a bit more polished.
Foxygen Setlist Webster Hall 10/9/14*
How Can You Really
On Blue Mountain
Coulda Been My Love
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Everyone Needs Love
*Setlist missing 3-4 songs.
(Photo by Cara Robbins)