with Future Islands, Bear Hands, Hippo Campus, Nosaj Thing, and Moon Boots
Skyway Theatre, Minneapolis
September 27, 2014
With all the adversity and anguish that has served as inspiration to Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring over the years, a nagging sound issue at Skyway Theatre wasn't going to derail their show on Saturday night. While the band couldn't hear the keys and synths of Gerrit Welmers out of their stage monitors, they soldiered on admirably throughout their riveting 90-minute set, with Herring carrying even more of the songs' weight on his broad shoulders.
The houselights dimmed a full ten minutes before the Baltimore-based quartet took the stage for their headlining set at Minneapolis's inaugural Downtown Festival. That wait only raised the level of anticipation in the slowly swelling crowd, before the band eventually appeared, as Herring greeting us warmly, "What the fuck is up, y'all? How you doing? Let's make some fucking music, I don't want to talk." And with that, the band tore through a dynamic version of "Back In The Tall Grass" that immediately warmed up the room.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly at this point, with Herring smiling affectionately at a "Go Orioles!" cheer from the crowd. But it was quickly determined that they weren't getting any of Welmers' keys or synths out of their monitors. As the wait to fix the problem dragged on, Herring had to ad lib, joining William Cashion on a stripped down version of "Heart Grows Old" that brought the energy level down just a bit but was still deeply moving. When they still hadn't remedied the issue after the song came to an end, Herring told the sound guy, "Let's make it fucking loud out there. I'm just going to guess." And if the exhilarating performance that followed was just Herring guessing and making stuff up as he went along, you would never have known it, as he locked in with the rhythm section and repeatedly lost himself in the songs.
In Walt Whitman's "Song Of Myself," the poet speaks eloquently of sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. When Herring unleashes hit guttural howl within Future Islands' impassioned electro-pop anthems, he is giving us a modern, updated version of Whitman's emphatic yawp that adds even more emotion to the songs. It's as if Herring is giving voice to the unspeakable sentiments lurking in the broken corners of our hearts, all over the glossy sheen of the group's dynamic arrangements.
It's a strange but fascinating dichotomy, especially when you factor in the high leg kicks, untamed gyrations, stage smacks, and Russian squat dances that Herring continually busts out when the spirit moves him. The disparate combination would prove to be too jarring in less capable hands, but with Future Islands it works so well that you can't possibly look away.
"Let's get fucking nasty, y'all," Herring instructed before fully igniting the set with a stream of roiling, intense gems, "Inch of Dust," "Walking Through That Door," and "Balance." At times, it was as if Herring was singing in a language entirely of his own devising, with just the fervor and pain of his muffled words coming through amongst the din. But that proved to be more than enough to fully communicate his splintered emotions and rile the crowd up. The band had fitfully shaken off any lingering effects of the sound problems by this point, as potent versions of Singles standouts "A Dream of You and Me," "A Song For Our Grandfathers," "Light House," and a "Born Slippy"-esque version of the Letterman sensation, "Seasons (Waiting On You)," rang out emphatically in the stark theatre.
But the troublesome sound issues weren't completely behind them, as Herring had to bring "Tin Man" to a stop a minute into the song due to a strange delay he was hearing on stage. However, the rousing ovation that greeted the restart of the number encouraged the band to really throw themselves into the track, as it built to a frenzied finish. The band ended the main set strong, with powerful versions of "Long Flight" and "Spirit," which Herring said is "a song about living life on your own terms, and not letting anyone put you in a box." With their intense, relentlessly distinctive material, Future Islands have boldly shaken off any customary designations and have instead forged their own unique path through the music industry and into the hearts and minds of their growing legion of fans.
The wait for the encore was just long enough that you began to wonder if one was even going to happen, but the cheers didn't die down and the band eventually returned. "Thank you for bringing us back out, we've got a couple more for you," Herring said appreciatively before the band eased into the simmering elegance of "Fall From Grace." They still had one last incendiary jam left in them before calling it a night, with an invite from Herring, "Let's fucking dance, baby" before a lively version of "Vireo's Eye" vehemently closed the show down. With any performance by Future Islands, you can visibly see that Herring and company are working through some substantial issues and weighty subject matter within their songs. On this night, sound issues were just a small fraction of their heavy burden that they routinely unload with each and every one of their dynamic live shows.
Personal Bias: I've only seen Future Islands as an opener before (for Phantogram and Okkervil River), so it was gratifying to see them rightfully be the stars of the show.
The Crowd: A more modest turnout than a band of Future Islands' quality deserves, but it was a bigger crowd than Deafheaven's headlining set on Friday night. Clearly, not enough people knew about this festival.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Is there any part of this floor that isn't slanted?"
Random Note About the Openers: The young local quartet Hippo Campus delivered a catchy and assured set to start the night. The burgeoning band was given a longer set time than they are typically used to, and made the most of their moment on the big stage, playing a breezy, inspired batch of songs that got the fans into it. Bear Hands set the stage well for the headliners with a set that was all over the musical map. Their influences run the gamut from Fugazi to LCD Soundsystem, from Soul Coughing to Sublime -- it was an eclectic mix that the band has polished up since their last show in town, and it went over well with the crowd. DJ's Nosaj Thing and Moon Boots closed down the night with spirited, beat-driven sets in the dance lounge, as Saturday night slowly stretched into Sunday morning.
Back In The Tall Grass
Heart Grows Old
Inch Of Dust
Walking Through That Door
Before The Bridge
A Dream Of You And Me
A Song For Our Grandfathers
Seasons (Waiting On You)
-- Encore --
Fall From Grace