When Sam Herring spoke of breaking the artifice last night, before closing the set out with “Little Dreamer”, I couldn’t help but wonder what he meant. Everything about Future Islands is honest. Their songs and stage presence are pure life. There is something primal about what they do – something essential. Everything about the band, and the face that represents them, breaks the artifice just by existing. So we didn’t need a love song about dreams coming true to remind us of that, but we also weren’t going to complain. After all, “Little Dreamer” is just a great fucking song.
One could say it’s been a long road for the band from Greenville, NC, but in all reality, it’s been a pretty short one. From formation (’06) to Baltimore (’07) to Rhinoceropolis (’08) to opening for Dan Deacon at the Bluebird (’09) to Larimer Lounge (’11) to opening for Phantogram at the Gothic (’13) to Letterman (March) to becoming the festival set to catch this summer (June) to their own headlining gig at the Gothic Theatre (last night), only took 8 years. Future Islands have achieved a level of success in less than a decade than I ever thought possible. The first time I saw them, at the Bluebird in ’08, I knew they were something special. They became one of my favorite bands (and live acts) before their short set even ended. But I still never imagined them headlining anything larger than Larimer Lounge. I was so wrong.
The Letterman performance has catapulted the band to the main stage. Along with this comes elaborate lighting, a live drummer and longer sets. These are all good things. Sam Herring is still the main attraction, but his signature dance moves and gospel-meets-the-devil vocals are now augmented by a light show that matches his personality. Instead of a simple spotlight projecting his gorilla-like shadow on the wall, his sweat now drips in blues and reds and greens as he gyrates like a perpetual motion machine in pleated pants. But this newfound fame is not without its pitfalls. Namely, the people who show up just because they want to see the dancing dude from late night TV. The bros who talk throughout the set, until “Seasons” is performed, and then thereafter. The blonde girls who stretch their bodies to lean over the balcony when Sam takes the stage — “What the fuck’s up Denver? Let’s do this!” — trying to get his attention, only to fail and sit down and twirl their hair the rest of the set. The idiot who thought it would be a good idea to spray water on his friends all night. There really was an amateur element to the crowd that I had never before seen at a Future Islands show. But for every one of them, there were five of us. It was amazing to look around the room and see so many people singing along with the many tracks from In Evening Air.
The addition of a drummer made all the difference in sound, adding a level of depth to the music that had been missing the last few times I had seen the band. Syth is just no substitute for a drum kit. But even with the addition of Michael Lowry, nothing about the band could take away from Sam’s stage presence. To quote myself after seeing them in San Francisco in 2011…
“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. Not 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 everything 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. Sam’s got stories to tell you, true stories that still hurt a bit — stories you need to hear.”
That paragraph was written about a small show at Bottom of the Hill, but the words apply to last night as well. The only difference is that the rafters were too high for him to reach at the Gothic Theatre and he added a new dance move where he simulates ripping his face off. The stories were all there though. “Balance” was dedicated to the young ‘uns in the crowd, because ‘it just takes time’. “Before The Bridge” was about ‘that long walk home’. “The Fountain” was the romantic one. And “Long Flight” was the heartbreaking one ‘about a guy who goes out on tour for 4 months and comes home to find he’s lost everything’. Unfortunately, that one was a true story. “Light House” was about ‘the dark times and the people who bring you back’.
“Spirit”, a song about ‘digging deep down inside yourself to find that flame’, ended the set on a positive note, proving that Future Islands are about more than just quirky dance moves and self flagellation, but when they came back for the encore, they turned the savagery up a notch.
Michael Lowry came running from backstage and launched himself onto a surprised crowd, before the rest of the band even came out. It was unexpected, but it also got everyone’s blood flowing. Which was appropriate because “Fall From Grace” and “Inch of Dust” were up next. Those selections could have easily started a circle pit, and although no one took the initiative last night, the beginning of the encore reminded me why the metal community has shown such an interest in Future Islands. Sam’s anger (and cookie monster vocals) during those two tracks were as aggressive and powerful as any death metal show I’ve been to. It was also at that point (right after “Fall From Grace’) that Sam confessed to not feeling 100% throughout the night..
“Fuck yeah, fuck yeah, fuck yeah!!! I felt like I was off tonight and I needed that!!!”
Well, shit Sam, if that was an off night, I’m not sure I could handle a night when you’re on! Screw breaking the artifice, “Inch of Dust” made me want to break the venue, break the city…break the night. “Visero’s Eye” did its best to calm the savage beast, but I still drove home (fast!), chanting ‘it’s never put together, it’s never put together’ like a man possessed. I’d say that’s the sign of a successful show! Even if the man wasn’t operating at full capacity, he was still the most intense front man I have ever seen. He made it as exciting as it was the first time I ever saw them.
Future Islands are one of those bands that have something of an oddity in Sam Herring — something that is going to make people stop and watch for a minute — but they also have a lasting sound. It’s that sound that is going to keep the real fans dedicated to the band once the hype around the Letterman meme fades. I hope they enjoy riding the wave they are on right now, and I hope they arn’t disappointed when it brings them back to shore, because even though they might lose some of the so-called fans at sea, those of us who were there when they paddled out will still be waiting on the beach…and I’m guessing our numbers will have swelled exponentially.
Dan Boeckner’s new band, Operators, opened the show. I had never heard of them, but it only took about 30 seconds to realize it was Boeckner. It was a nice surprise. They were very synth heavy and sounded like an electro-Handsome Furs, but the last song they played wouldn’t have been out of place on a Wolf Parade record. Looking forward to hearing more from them.
Give Us the Wind
Back in the Tall Grass
A Dream of You and Me
Walking Through That Door
Before the Bridge
A Song for Our Grandfathers
Seasons (Waiting on You)
Fall from Grace
Inch of Dust