Live review: Future Islands at the Haw River Ballroom

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Future Islands at Hopscotch in 2013 - FILE PHOTO BY ADAM KISSICK
  • file photo by Adam Kissick
  • Future Islands at Hopscotch in 2013
At the end of last night's sold-out Future Islands show at Saxapahaw's Haw River Ballroom, vocalist Samuel Herring asked to have the house lights turned up—not a lot, just a little—to "strip the artifice for this last one." Then the band played "Little Dreamer," an old and tender song, written, as Herring pointed out, in Backdoor Skate Shop in Greenville, N.C., where the band formed. In his typically melodramatic way, Herring clutched his head and appeared to be either on the verge of tears or deep in desolate contemplation as he sang. There wasn't much to dance to in this last moment of a four-song encore, but there was a lot of heart.

Future Islands earned a spot on Monday night's The Late Show with David Letterman, and the host not only gushed about their performance, but also featured Herring's distinctive dancing in yesterday's opening monologue (it starts about three minutes in). Yet there wasn't as much dancing as usual in the Haw River Ballroom; for a Future Islands show, the crowd was notably subdued. This couldn't be blamed on the band, who offered plenty of passion and energy, plus tributes to North Carolina. The trio, plus touring drummer Mike Lowry, played lots of new music and a few older favorites. Chalk it up to the polite feel of the room: Haw River Ballroom is fairly upscale, after all. Or maybe it had to do with the crowd's unfamiliarity with the new tunes, as new LP and 4AD debut Singles doesn't come out for a few more weeks.

Future Islands opened with "Back in the Tall Grass," which Herring said was written about a creek behind Newport Elementary School in Eastern North Carolina. It led directly into lead Singles track "Seasons (Waiting on You)." Once the band moved into older cuts like "Balance," from 2011's On the Waterthe room finally erupted. "Tin Man," from 2010's In Evening Air, caused a perfect storm of audience energy and performance magic. As the song came to a close, the crowd positively boiled, while Herring lowered his voice to a metal-as-fuck baritone roar for the closing lines. This vocal approach also defined the defeated, angry "Fall From Grace," a Singles track that served as the first encore.

Future Islands may be changing. The new LP may not be as dance-friendly as earlier ones. Maybe once the fans get to know the new songs, there will be more audience engagement. Yet Singles' largely mid-tempo, introspective feel—as showcased throughout last night's concert—seems to emphasize Future Islands' respectable strengths as songwriters rather than body-rockers. And just because the audience wasn't dancing doesn't mean it wasn't a good evening.

When bassist William Cashion had an issue with his amp, Herring offered to sing the band's regular soundcheck, "Swept Inside," a cappella. As he did, the room went mostly quiet. Some people chatted away, seemingly oblivious to the spontaneous live-music gold appearing onstage, but they were quickly shushed by people excited to hear Herring's dense, emotional lyrics and nothing else. If the new Future Islands record is a showcase of their songwriting rather than their bounce, their fans seem ready to go there, even if it means less dancing.

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