It’s been wonderful watching Future Islands climb the ranks of DC music venues, playing to larger and larger clubs with each consecutive tour. From starting at house shows and tiny rooms like the Red Palace, to the coup of moving from the Black Cat’s backstage to its mainstage in one fell swoop, the Baltimore-based trio finally seems to be getting more of the recognition it so clearly deserves. The band played its largest headlining show yet in the nation’s capital on October 25th, 2011, at the venerable Black Cat’s mainstage.
Baltimore cohorts and friends Ed Schrader’s Music Beat began the night, entertaining a small, early crowd with its stripped down, minimal no-wave. Schrader stands before a floor tom, illuminated by a light within the drum, banging out brutal rhythms, while Devlin Rice provides scuzzy accompaniment on bass. Schrader’s voice alternates between a low, Ian Curtis-esque bellow and a frenetic bark that recalls Andy Falkous of McClusky and Future of the Left. In other words, this is aggressive music, even in its quieter moments. The duo blasted through a large number of songs, most hitting under the two-minute mark. By the time it finished its set, the crowd around the stage had grown significantly as people abandoned their barside seats to see who was responsible for the noise onstage.
Brooklyn’s Javelin, Future Islands’s Thrill Jockey labelmates, are on the rise as well. Another duo, cousins Tom van Buskirk and George Langford play a brand of electro-pop that lifts from contemporary R&B and indie synth-rock in equal parts. Its live set-up is impressively eclectic: drum-pads and synths intermingle with a dizzying array of pedals and what looks like a kazoo jury-rigged to a mixer. Javelin features, yes, a white guy rapping—but stay with me, here. First, think less Marky Mark and more Girl Talk, but a more interesting version of the latter. Now, go ahead and think Marky Mark: the band’s “Vibrationz” self-consciously recalls The Funky Bunch’s contributions to the world of the early ‘90s, and the rapping that happens onstage is a means of live remixing. Bits of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Beastie Boys, and Ludacris pop up above Javelin’s sunny melodies and massive beats. But unlike supposed mash-up wizards who merely cut-and-paste seemingly disparate tracks together, Javelin creates entirely new songs out of this source material. You wouldn’t know “Sabotage” is happening, unless you pay enough attention to pick apart the lyrics; otherwise, the song onstage could be another in Javelin’s apparently endless supply of breezy, carefree summertime jams.
When Future Islands took the stage, the crowd surged forward. You can’t blame them—anyone familiar with the band’s live show knows the place to be is as close to frontman Sam Herring as physically possible. The silver-throated vocalist brings a physicality to his shows that is absolutely contagious and unforgettable. He slaps himself in the face, throws his sweat onto the audience, punches at the floor, springs from a crouch to prowl like an animal around the stage—all in the same verse. The guy is a born performer, a natural frontman. His presence, thick and stocky like a young Brando, would be almost frightening if it weren’t so immediately apparent that Herring is having fun exorcising his demons onstage. Between songs, when he bursts into a belly laugh, he reveals the sweetness that makes him so likeable to roomful after roomful of complete strangers.
Future Island’s latest record, On the Water, has garnished gushing praise from critics and fans alike, and the band’s set relied heavily on that new material. It has been playing these songs live for quite a while now, with “Before the Bridge” and “On the Water” live staples long before they saw release. Still, Herring and his bandmates, keyboardist J. Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion, play these tracks as if they’re brand new, not losing a lick of passion or drive. The trio opened the set with On the Water’s stately, restrained closer, “Grease”, allowing Herring to warm up the crowd with his theatrical gestures and maniacal grin.
Fan favorites “An Apology”, “Inch of Dust”, and “Long Flight”—all from the band’s breakout record, In Evening Air (2010)—followed next, in close succession. “Long Flight’s” place early in the setlist was particularly revealing; a year ago, the band would’ve waited until the end of the set to play the song, its most cathartic and one of its most famous. Future Islands believes in its new material enough to let the songs bear the weight of a live show. And rightly so—tracks like “Before the Bridge” and “Balance” brought the crowd to a sweaty, bouncing furor just as well as anything the band played. However, it was during the quieter songs from Water that the band’s new level of confidence and accomplishment really came to light.
On record, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner joins Herring in a duet on “The Great Fire”. At the Black Cat, Herring took on both vocal parts, hitting Wasner’s high notes with thrilling results. Similarly, his voice shined on the quietly epic “Give Us the Wind” and the unreleased favorite, “Tomorrow”. Herring always brings an even more dynamic touch to his vocals live, growling more deeply and shooting for the rafters more readily, but his voice sounds better than ever now. It’s the sound of a man feeling completely at ease with his instrument. He and Future Islands have achieved a level of steady brilliance most bands never reach. Live, the band communes with its audience: join us in all this sweat, they say, and we will repay you times ten.
Inch of Dust
Before the Bridge
Walking Through That Door
Give Us the Wind
The Great Fire
Close to None
The Happiness of Being Twice
In the Fall