The Phest may be gone, but the Phuzz lives on

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Breathers, of Atlanta, helped bring a Phuzzy vibe to the Garage, filling the void left by the absence of the festival.

by Spencer K. M. Brown

There was a soft chatter among the crowd, the smell of alcohol and cigarettes hung overhead as T0W3RS took the stage, climbing the wooden steps with a strutting, confident performer’s charm, and staring out at the crowd for a moment, he flashed a little smile. Clad in black boots, a well-fitted black suit, with customary white button-down shirt and wide-brimmed hat, front man Derek Torres began the set alone on stage, the crowd pushing forward, drawn to be near the sexual, energetic vibes emanating from his powerful, tenor’s voice. With a wave of his hand, the full band, which now makes up Chapel Hill-based T0W3RS, joined their leader on stage. With a thunder of energy and dark melodies pouring forth from the speakers, Torres quickly took control of the room with a performance seemingly reserved only for arenas.

His arms and feet moved and danced in rhythm, body falling to the stage-floor in charismatic oscillation. A sight resembling a religious awakening, Torres moved across the stage with authority, reaching over the bar before him to touch fans, a fever of energy surrounding him as his voice bellowed forth. Suddenly the music waned and applause caromed throughout the club from an audience captivated by the hypnotic and powerful performance. But this was still only the first song in their set.

Derek Torres, who is signed to Phuzz Records and performs as T0W3RS, is a local favorite, having performed both intimate and sprawling sets in the Triad — sometimes with a backing band and sometimes solo — and even appearing at a house show in Greensboro. He amazed a packed house at Single Brothers in Winston-Salem during a Phuzz Phest performance in 2014 and it’s no surprise to see an audience glued to him for his musicality and his showmanship.

With Phuzz Phest and Phuzz Records founder Philip Pledger’s announcement that the much celebrated annual festival was being disbanded, many locals and festival supporters were both angered and mournful at the news. This left us wondering, What comes next? But without skipping a beat, Phuzz Records — the driving force behind Phuzz Phest — announced a new series of showcases, spread throughout the year, where bands that would have been on the festival bill will still have a chance to perform for fans in the Triad.

Adhering to the unique and diverse esthetic that made the festival what it was, Feb. 3 at the Garage in Winston-Salem commenced the new endeavor with a solid line-up of Breathers, Body Games and T0W3RS for the first Phuzz Records Presents showcase.

At the open, despite the usual timid crowd-gathering around the bar and back of the club, Atlanta-based synth-pop and new-wave trio Breathers broke the silence with an inventive electronic sound that harkened back to the retro style of ’80s glam-pop. Blending the music with the passionate, energetic performance and crooner-esque vocals by frontman and former local Lee Gunselman, the crowd pushed forward, captivated by the tight-knit trio.

The atmosphere was elevated even more when a few people hung a large, transparent sheet like a wall between the stage and crowd after Breathers’ set. A quick change of keyboards and gear, the lights dimmed throughout the club for Carrboro electronic band Body Games. The pulse of energy was maintained, yet shifted subtly as soothing synths and a projected video and light show brought gentle transition to the atmosphere, keeping eyes hooked on the images flashing in synchronicity with the music. Body Games blended an echoing, poetic set throughout the club in a shoegazing, hypnotic sound reminiscent of Sylvan Esso and Youth Lagoon.

The bands selected for this initial showcase flowed together in an adhesive, electronic sound complimentary to one another, while still diverse, making the entire show truly cohesive. In that sense the spirit of Phuzz Phest spilled over into the series’ kickoff, something Garage owner Tucker Tharpe is confident will continue.

“Even with the festival gone, we’re going to keep doing what we do best,” Tharpe said. “We’re going to bring in the most talented musicians and put on the best shows, just like we’ve always done, just like we’ll always do. And we’ll continue to push the boundaries of what people think is possible.”

It’s rare to see such thought and time put into live shows, but if what we’ve seen from Phuzz Phest in the past holds, this new series of showcases should only be met with great anticipation for what is to come.