Future Islands @ Webster Hall | 4/30/14
“This is how you take over a city, Baltimore style,” said Samuel Herring, lead singer of the Baltimore-based Future Islands, surveying the crowd as they walked on stage Wednesday night at Webster Hall in New York. The band, which has been releasing adored, under-the-radar records for the better part of a decade, has recently been propelled by a major record deal and a surprise viral spot on Letterman. Before they even played a note, Herring announced Wednesday night’s show was the biggest headlining crowd the band had ever played for.
But the Herring-fronted Future Islands proved they need not compromise their warm, uplifting, weird-embracing, live show for the bigger stage. Apart from Herring’s flamboyant antics as the group’s magnetic, romantic frontman, the band didn’t rely on any theatrics or spectacle to sell their warm-hearted songs of compassion and survival on stage.
Future Island’s 75-minute set was a studied case of a rapidly ascendant band keeping itself in check. The Baltimore group has been at it for too long to take their sold-out big club tour for granted, and Herring, who was admittedly quite sick Wednesday evening, led the four piece group through a set as a grizzled professional. The big hits (“Balance,” “Seasons”) were presented nonchalantly, without fanfare, early in the 75-minute set, so as to take away from their singular importance. “People change, but some people never do,” Herring sang, pounding his chest in triumph, during the latter song. On Wednesday night, that line sounded like a promise, and a threat. Future Islands is a band eager, perhaps desperate, to remain itself in the face of their recent blitz of indie media attention. During “Seasons,” the group vowed to never became a band known for a viral dance move.
As the band’s leader and main attraction, Herring plays a compelling character. His endearing act is one part over the top physicality, one part spiritual self-help guru. He is a cornball anti-sex symbol who goes out of his way to introduce nearly every song throughout the evening. “This is a song about digging deep down in yourself and finding that little spark, and bringing it to the surface,” was one intro typical of Herring’s warm-hearted, movingly earnest sentimentality. His group’s songs, which more often than not each contain their own mantras (“it just takes time,” “don’t hurt no more,” “challenge you”), makes you want to believe in fortune cookies. “I asked myself for peace, and I found a piece of me,” Herring sang, in a typically clever, genuine moment of revelation, during “A Dream Of You And Me,” early on in the set.
Future Islands’ blend of self-help synth pop doesn’t shy from seriousness, complexity, or nuance. The beauty and celebration of their live show springs from the dark depression and deep pain of the band’s well-crafted lyrics. The band showed a great deal of dynamic range in their performance, with the moody mid-set double shot of “A Song For Our Grandfathers” and “Light House” providing a clear highlight of the evening.
With their earnest lyrics about struggle and uplift and their unpretentious emotive live show, Future Islands preaches deep communion in without any grandstanding. “You can’t sell honesty,” Herring said in a recent interview with Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages. But his band does just that, and it just so happens that Future Islands’ brand of no-nonsense emoting is rather in vogue these days, Letterman or not.
That Herring was deeply sick for the show, remarking on his illness several times throughout, provided a fitting and convenient narrative for the perpetual underdog singer. “I’m feeling a little sick but you guys already got me feeling better,” he claimed just one song into the group’s set. Indeed, Herring didn’t seem very mired by his illness, Herring pogo-ing around the stage, running in place, dancing with abandon, and customarily punching his chest with fervor all evening.
“He’s having feelings!” a man in the crowd remarked to his friend, as Herring appeared to be hugging himself.
If Herring has any party trick, it might be the death metal growl he sporadically lapses into during heightened moments of catharsis. It’s a moving, evocative gesture, but one that runs the risk of being an overused shtick. The crowd cheered wildly every time he lapses into the growl Wednesday night, as if Bob Dylan were reaching for his harmonica.
The rest of Future Islands, with Gerrit Welmers on synthesizer, William Cashion on bass, and Michael Lowry serving as the touring drummer, provides a mopey counterweight to Herring’s emotive theatrics. With the spotlight on Herring, and Herring alone, his cult of personality as a frontman shines even brighter. Awkward men were mimicking his moves in the crowd, dancing with goofy abandon. Women were screaming when Herring laid down some of his more intensely physical, and sensual, dance moves of the night.
He was blowing empty kisses to the faraway reaches of the balcony throughout the night, something he must not yet be used to from his many years playing tiny clubs and DIY venues. But it looked so natural coming from Herring, you wouldn’t have been able to tell it was anything new. Future Islands took to their biggest stage at Webster Hall with grace and confidence, acting more like themselves–a veteran, highly professional indie powerhouse–than any upstart buzzband enjoying their fifteen seconds of internet fame.
Setlist of Future Islands @ Webster Hall 4/30/14
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)
Walking Through That Door
Fall from Grace