notes from the road: Future Islands. 11.15.11

It has been almost three years since I first stumbled upon the Baltimore trio that goes by the name of Future Islands.  I just happened to show up early to the Bluebird back when they were filling the opening slot for Dan Deacon’s w/Ensemble tour.  Thinking back on that night, there was really no reason for me to be there that early — I had never heard of Pictureplane, Teeth Mountain or Future Islands, and I only harbored a certain sense of curiosity for Deacon’s performance.  In Evening Air was still over a year away, so I really have no clue what songs they performed.  In reality, I remember very little about the set.  But I do remember Sam — the primal, wide-eyed, sweat-soaked singer/preacher man in the white button-down and khakis.  Sam left an impression on me that night and In Evening Air left another impression on me the year after, but seeing Sam again, ‘up close and personal’ at Bottom of the Hill left the biggest impression yet.   He walked right up to my friend, shook his hand “hi, my name is Sam” and then took the stage and demanded the attention of the sold-out crowd with “The Great Fire”.  For the next hour, we were witness to one of the most disturbingly sincere performances we have ever seen.

Future Islands are a band by every definition of the word.  Gerrit Welmers is back there on keyboards, looking angry.  William Cashion is an incredible bassist, and incredibly stoic — but you would be forgiven for not noticing they are there.  This isn’t to take anything away from what they bring to the band, or to the Future Islands sound, it’s just that Samuel T. Herring’s personality eclipses anything in the vicinity.  He is the main attraction in this particular circus.  He is the lion as well as the lion tamer.  He is the Jack Black of synthpop. Every introduction leads to a story, every story a song, every song a new dance — gyrating his pleated hips, hanging from the rafters, dripping with sweat — and then he’s on the ground, screaming in agony — then he’s upright and crooning for cheating women and life’s unfair lessons.  He will punch himself in the face when the moment takes him, but beating his chest like some primate in heat seems to be his chosen form of self-punishment.  This is Sam, and only after you understand his role in the show, can you get to the music.

There can always be more vocal, but Bottom of the Hill pulled it off when it came to sound, which isn’t an easy thing when you have a vocalist who ranges from an opera singer to Tom Waits to Johnny Cash in the same verse.  Future Islands do not have a drummer, so if anything is off in the synth department, the sound can go to hell quickly.  But everything stayed on track, only going off the rails when it was meant to happen.  The setlist was perfect as well, including enough tracks from On The Water to keep the newbies singing along, but a large portion of In Evening Air to keep that schizophrenic, ‘what-way-do-I-move? what-do-I-feel’, element to the show.  “Inch Of Dust”, “Tin Man”, “Long Flight” and “Walking Through That Door” were all personal highlights, but the encore consisting of two tracks from 2009’s Feathers & Hallways 7″ proved that I didn’t have to know the songs to enjoy the performance.  There really wasn’t a bad track in the set.

I missed the show here at Larimer Lounge, but all the reviews I read said it was the surprise show of the year.  I think it’s great Future Islands are finally getting the respect they deserve. I also think it’s great that people are so surprised by the performance.  Bottom of the Hill was my third (and best) show, but I do envy the people who walk in blind.  I really wish I could start all over again myself.

The videos below don’t sound great, but they will give you an idea of what a Future Islands performance is all about.  Don’t let these be an alternative to a live show!  Get out there and see them!  Sam’s got stories to tell you, true stories that still hurt a bit — stories you need to hear.

Setlist:
The Great Fire
An Apology
Inch Of Dust
Balance
Before The Bridge
Tin Man
Tomorrow
Grease
Close To None
Long Flight
Walking Through That Door
Old Friend
Vireo’s Eye

The Happiness of Being Twice
Pinocchio

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