Future Islands. Red Rocks. 07.16.15
“We’re Future Islands man, this is just what the fuck we do!” Truer words have never been spoken from the stage at Red Rocks. Sam Herring wore a joker’s grin as he addressed the growing crowd. Every drop of sweat that hit the stage threatened to combust as the man with endless dance moves marked his territory. The synthpop band who appeared on Letterman last year have been riding a rocket-like trajectory ever since, but who could have foreseen that a simple slot on a late night television show would set them on a flight path that would touchdown on the iconic stage in Morrison? Who could have seen that they would arrive on that stage just in time to open for one of their most iconic influences? It might have been an unlikely turn of events that got them there, but as they transformed their ‘opener’ status into something that more resembled a co-headliner, Sam Herring and the Future Islands proved that ‘what the fuck they do’ works just as well on the big stage as it did in places like Rhinoceropolis and Larimer Lounge.
Having seen Future Islands perform six times in as many years, I’m going to paraphrase and straight-up plagiarize myself where is makes sense…
The Letterman performance catapulted Sam and the boys to the big stage. Along with their new status came elaborate lighting, a live drummer and longer sets. Those are all good things, but as he proved at Red Rocks on Thursday night, Sam Herring is still the main attraction. His signature dance moves (he even pulled out some new body-slamming moves this time around) and gospel-meets-the-devil vocals are now augmented by a light show that matches his personality, but he’s still the same guy whose gorilla-like shadow was projected on walls in small clubs just a couple years ago. His sweat now drips in blues and reds and greens as he gyrates like a perpetual motion machine, but it’s still the same sweat that fell in black-and-white not so long ago.
Future Islands newfound fame did not come free of charge for their true fans though. Those of us who have been around since the beginning find ourselves having to deal with those who show up just because they want to see the dancing dude from late night TV. That wasn’t as much of an issue at Red Rocks as it was at the Gothic last year, but we did have an incident with an older couple who wanted us to sit down during their set. Sit down during Future Islands?!!! Are you kidding me?!!! The couple claimed they knew the band, but they obviously didn’t understand that while Sam’s stage presence is a primal sight to behold, he’s not some animal in a zoo to be observed from the comfort of your seat. When Sam says dance, you dance motherfucker!
Anyway, we weren’t about to let the downers get us down, so when Sam turned his gazed up to the “magical place” presented before him, he found us on our feet in support of all that he does. As “one of the most amazing things” he had ever seen reflected back in his eyes, he saw us and we saw him — and while we shared that moment, the downers were seeing nothing more than the back of our heads.
The Future Islands set lasted over an hour and spanned thirteen songs across all four albums. Every selection contained a story told in words and interpretive dance…and every story required an introduction. Sam doesn’t just want you to feel something, he demands it. There was the song “about walking by a great lake while wresting with a question” (“A Dream of You and Me”). There was the one about the “babes of the deep South” (“Walking Through That Door”). And there was the heartbreaking true story about “the guy who went on tour and came home to find he lost everything he loved” (Long Flight). When they had drum difficulties mid-set, they powered on like true professionals. “We’re going to improvise,” Sam assured the crowd and his band, “life is terrifying and Future Islands aren’t afraid to get weird.”
The next track, “Doves”, came with a warning — “This next song is gonna get a little Rated R, so if you have kids, you might want to get them to close their eyes.” Eyes, not ears. The parental advisory had nothing to do with the lyrics and had everything to do with Sam getting a little too fresh with himself. But once he finished up being too sexy for his shirt, he brought us back to the tobacco fields of his youth (“A Song For Our Grandfathers”) and to the dark times when all you need is someone to provide a little light (“Light House”). “Seasons (Waiting on You)” was permission to just let go when it came time to do so, and it was the song that most of the people in the crowd could sing along with, but the highlight for me was the part when “Tin Man” found Sam ripping out his heart while singing about a man who was just trying to find one of his own. After a little more self-abusive in the form of a fist to the face, the band helped wrapped things up with “Littler Dreamer”, just as they did at the Gothic last year. And then it was done. “We love you Red Rocks, you’ve been very kind.”
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 made Morrissey * choose them as an opening act. It’s that sound that is going to keep the real fans dedicated 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 their ‘so-called’ fans at sea, it will be those who couldn’t be bothered to stand up at the shows anyway. And who needs them? Those of us who were around when they paddled out into the big waves will still be waiting here on the beach when they get back…and I’m guessing our numbers will have swelled exponentially by then.
* A separate review of Morrissey’s set will be coming
Back in the Tall Grass
A Dream Of You
Walking Through That Door
Before the Bridge
A Song for Our Grandfathers
Seasons (Waiting on You)