With Ed Schrader's Music Beat
Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis
Friday, March 28, 2014
Samuel T. Herring is to indie rock what Louis C.K. is to comedy. Both men are extraordinary creatives inhabiting the black T-shirted bodies of the everyman. They eschew makeup, glitz, and artifice. Their strength is making us re-feel our own convictions. As they find ingenious ways to floor us with what we already know, we feel like we know them too. In C.K., it's the maladies of everyday society. In Herring, it's the trappings of everyday love and loss.
Herring and his Baltimore-based synth-rock group Future Islands brought their workmanlike stage show to Triple Rock Friday. The band's recent breakout performance on Late Show With David Letterman showed many for the first time how far they could push themselves in three minutes. Here, they attempted to expand that 17-fold.
Where C.K. and Herring differ significantly is the way they get their messages across. The former transforms himself into an old, unkempt schlub onstage, and the latter is a swooping, chest-beating gargoyle no longer cemented to the assumptions invoked by his facade. On Friday, Herring cut through the evening air with talons and wings invented with his physicality.
Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, bassist William Cashion, and touring drummer Michael Lowry proved as understated of a supporting cast as any. Fusing together New Wave nostalgia, more-recent electronica, and avant-rock flourishes, Future Islands' piercing synthesizer notes, quavering bass lines, and beats -- oh, the beats -- locked together tighter with each song. Meanwhile, Herring gradually tore himself apart.
With "Back in the Tall Grass" -- a cool, mid-tempo exploration of long-distance relationships created by both geography and time from the just-released Singles -- Herring immediately asserted himself in the room and got right into the faces of the front row. Almost obsessively, he gradually made eye contact with everyone who would have him, and unpacked moves that mixed punk brutality, modern dance theatrics, and the slashing athleticism of a speed skater. All the while, Cashion used a DIY foot pedal to trigger lights bathing his frontman's stage in intimate hues.
See also: Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring on doing Letterman: That's not as wild as I get
Herring's vocal delivery held impressively strong as he worked himself into a sopping, sweaty state. "Let's get fucking dirty, y'all," he demanded at the outset of 2010's mercurial "Tin Man." As his chameleonic singing darted in to a harsh, gurgling rasp, it was clear that warm-ups for the night were over. The room followed suit and shook their bodies. Like Henry Rollins impersonating Marcel Marceau, or vice versa, Herring alternated between acrobatic lunges and over-the-top miming, and capped the exhibition with a simulation of ripping his own face off.
There were a few breaks in the carnage. "A Song for Our Grandfathers" shifted Herring back a gear, and the slow, minimalist lament proved that the night would not be entirely full-throttle. But it was a bit of calm before the storm via the razor-sharp "Light House" -- heavy on its '80s retro feel. At this point, such a passionate supporting argument was forged that the excitement their current viral-as-all-hell single "Seasons (Waiting on You)" elicited next felt merely on par with what had come before. Sort of One-Hit Wonder insurance, if you will.
Improbably, Future Islands dug deeper still. The beats towered miles above us for "Inch of Dust," and the room felt more like the first few rows of a stadium show as Herring swung his torso violently up and down to the rhythm. "Fuck right!" he exclaimed several times afterwards. His most delectable physical flourish of the night was a bit of sensual butt wagging, a la Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan, for the gut-shaking set-closer "Long Flight." The song resounded like Aphex Twin created by humans instead of robots.
For anyone arriving late, the encore was the night's total distilled package. "Fall From Grace" proved a goth anthem of the highest order -- we're talking Silence of the Lambs-level shit. With a docile backing arrangement, Herring's growl exploded. As the ache inside of him escaped, he untucked his shirt and let it all hang out. After announcing to the audience that "We're in a relationship," the night ended on the of the band's oldest and saddest songs, "Little Dreamer." With a dollop of Sam Cooke-style soul, this is one of the hardest songs to sing after a fierce workout, so Herring let his heart carry him.
On paper, Future Islands songs walk the well-worn footpaths to the beach that coffee-shop songwriters have clung to for decades. These are lyrics about dreams, about youth remembered, longing for another, a home that no longer exists, and nature's role in it all. Louis C.K.'s worldly observations turned out to be darkly humorous, this band's look at the world turned out to be darkly heartfelt.
Herring told me in a interview, "This isn't a joke. This isn't ironic. This is just us being as honest as possible in our music." It's a risky endeavor to play to persnickety fans with so few clever metaphors and one-liners to heighten the message, but it's also a reminder that the best music is never one-dimensional. Like the spray of a sweaty arm swung over lit-up faces, it has to hit us all over.
The Crowd: Hopping around without hurting one another.
Personal Bias: Singles is one of my favorite albums of the young year. It'd be pretty easy to call this band one-note. But if you're predisposed to like keyboard-driven pop that doesn't suck, there's no one who's recording it (and performing it live) better right now.
Random Notebook Dump: Now I know what Samuel T. Herring's sweat tastes like.
The Opener: Ed Schrader's Music Beat, also from Baltimore, was the perfect apéritif. The duo of drummer Schrader and bassist Devlin Rice smash together punk, surf rock, and doo-wop into nerdy experiments that gave a long-suffering Modest Mouse fan some hope. Check these dudes out immediately.
Back In The Tall Grass
Sun In The Morning
Before The Bridge
A Dream Of You And Me
A Song For Our Grandfathers
Seasons (Waiting On You)
Inch Of Dust
Walking Through That Door
Fall From Grace
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