Future Islands prove they're much more than a meme at First Ave

Samuel Herring of Future Islands puts his best foot forward at First Ave.

Samuel Herring of Future Islands puts his best foot forward at First Ave. Darin Kamnetz

If aughts indie rock had an Ed Sullivan moment, it was the night in March 2014 when Future Islands’ Samuel Herring grooved and growled through his band’s “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on The Late Show with David Letterman, catapulting the hard-touring but little-known synthpop band into the limelight.

The performance was captured on the most-watched YouTube video in the show’s history and the band’s fourth LP, Singles, hit the Billboard Top 40 where previously they had never even sniffed a charting position.

Flashes in the pan are brighter and more quickly forgotten in the social media era, but a full three years later, everyone and their mother’s Twitter followers are still into Future Islands. Now promoting April’s The Far Field, the Baltimore group sold out First Avenue Sunday night. It was their first time headlining the Mainroom, having supported Phantogram and Okkervil River there in the past but leading the bill only at smaller venues like the Triple Rock.

Before bassist William Cashion or keyboardist Gerrit Welmers played a single note, Herring delivered a two-minute monologue detailing the group’s history with Minneapolis. “Thanks for helping us sell this legendary place out,” the singer told the crowd before kicking into opener “Ran,” the new record’s upbeat first single.

The band’s 19-song set predictably focused on Far Field cuts like “Aladdin,” “Time on Her Side” and “Cave,” but fans who’ve followed Future Islands from their pre-Letterman days were also treated to older gems such as “Inch of Dust” and “Long Flight” from 2010’s In Evening Air.

As danceable and catchy as Future Islands’ tunes are, Herring’s stage moves make him clearly the star of the live show. The closest most of his fellow synthpop frontmen come to evoking Joy Division is maybe wearing an Unknown Pleasures T-shirt, but the stocky 33-year-old barrels around in manic, primal motions that suggest what it might have looked like if Ian Curtis had lived to front New Order. And occasionally, he’ll sing a line or two with a guttural roar – suggesting instead what it might sound like if a screamo singer had been chosen to front New Order.

Herring’s visceral motions add a disturbing undertone to Future Islands’ pleasant songs. They elevate what can be, at times, homogenous and anonymous synthpop. Herring has more signature moves than a professional wrestler: There’s the chest pound, the deep lunge, the Tiger Woods air punch, the crab walk, the college professor fist shake, the hit-the-deck dive, the third base coach waving you home, and a dozen other routines that wouldn’t look out of place in a synchronized swimming competition.

These moves prove that Herring isn’t just going through the motions. Sure, he pulled out the same tricks in Denver and Omaha earlier in the week, but that doesn’t detract from the extra weight of emotion they give to his lyrics. They tell you he’s believing his words in the current moment, and put you right in that moment with him – so much so, in fact, that he spawned imitators across the room with every bodily gesture.

The frontman’s gyrations were the source of the biggest cheers of the night until the band broke out into “Seasons.” For those four minutes, the crowd entered a frenzy rivaling any pre-coached Letterman audience, while Herring poured the same passion into his performance as he did when he gained club-fulls of fans on late-night TV three-and-a-half years ago.

Future Islands’ biggest hit would’ve been a great way to send the 1,500 in attendance into the evening air, and the same could be said for fan favorite “Tin Man,” which came next on the setlist. The actual closer, Singles’ “Spirit,” ultimately felt anticlimactic coming on the heels of those two defining numbers.

But then again, “spirit” might be the perfect word to describe Samuel Herring and his archipelago to-be.

Click here to see photos of Future Islands at First Ave 

Critic’s bias: I saw Future Islands at Coachella and Boston Calling in 2014, and as good as those shows were, I enjoyed this full headlining performance the most.

Overheard in the crowd: “My god, this guy is insane!”