Future Islands took the stage at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday night, and frontman Sam Herring appeared happy, but tired. The singer seemed overwhelmed by joy, overwhelmed by the heat of the sun that was only now setting, and overwhelmed by the nonstop personal reunions at this, his band's 1,000th show.
His speaking voice seemed extra-raspy, though his singing voice did not. And if he was indeed as overwhelmed and wiped out as he initially seemed, the feeling faded quickly. Like him, lots of people had been at Carrboro Town Commons all day, baking in the sun, waiting for Future Islands to celebrate this milestone. And that's what they did.
Future Islands electrified for 90 minutes. The audience of 4,500 or so became a sea of dancing and bouncing. And then they were done. The crowd vanished, leaving little but empty beer cups crushed on the ground and clusters of balloons that spelled "1,000" flying overhead.
It all started at 2:30 Sunday afternoon with Lonnie Walker, a Raleigh outfit that formed in the same rough-and-tumble Greenville underground as Future Islands. Frontman Brian Corum played a fantastic purple Fender, and his band was tight, per usual. A decent crowd had already gathered forward of the sound tent; it would grow substantially as the day progressed. Valient Thorr followed with the day's heaviest set, as wild-eyed frontman Valient Himself emerged to the Rocky theme with oversized boxing gloves and a cape.
At this point, it felt seriously hot, with a high of 91 and temperatures otherwise hovering in the high 80s. Save for the standing structures of the Carrboro Farmer's Market and Town Commons, there wasn't a lot of shade, particularly near the stage. And the "cool-off station" was mostly a bad joke, a small canopy tent with some garden-misters overhead. The only source of free water were outdoor spigots (the kind you'd use to water your dog, but not yourself) and a lone fountain with a perpetually long line. Unless you brought your own pallet of bottled water or were willing to buy drink after drink from the vendors, it was the only game in town. Organizers seemed better prepared for this big show than they did for Sylvan Esso's big Carrboro Town Commons gig, but the space is still not equipped to be an amphitheater for a scorching summer day. Perhaps the overheated people that emergency crews assisted throughout the day underlined that point. And by 5:30, or three hours into a nearly eight-hour event, the staff had run out of reentry wristbands. Too bad if you wanted to go cool off elsewhere.
Instead, people coped by retreating into the covered walkways along the back and sides of Carrboro Town Commons. I paced myself. I watched Ed Schrader's Music Beat from the shade, and it was a good vantage. The drum (literally, one drum) and bass duo delivered sheer frantic weirdness.
The bill's lone hip-hop act, Danny Brown, followed with a magnificent set—just as weird, sure, just not desperately so. The Detroit emcee proceeded to enlarge the vocabularies of the children in attendance (Did the babysitter cancel?) and perform his heart and sweat out for an adoring crowd. The DJ was able to kill the track regularly and let the audience sing along to cuts like "Smokin & Drinkin."
It was at this point that the event really took off, as audience engagement was key to both Danny Brown's amazing set and Dan Deacon's, which followed. Deacon whipped the crowd into a gyrating, wet frenzy, organizing dance-offs and on-the-spot mass choreography. That's the absurdist ringleader's modus operandi, yes, but still, it was remarkable to witness the spectacle on such a grand scale. At one point, Deacon led a guided meditation of sorts. It started out like a hand-holding summer camp exercise, but it ended as a powerful statement on police-custody deaths. The Nintendo-meets-Neu! anthem "Wham City" was an immersive, blissful highlight.
And now we're caught up: It's 8:30 p.m. Future Islands takes the stage. Herring initially sounds raspy and seems tired. The crowd is sun-baked and exhausted, too, particularly those who have been here the whole time. The beer lines are absurd, and occasionally EMS vehicles leave with their lights on. It's a little Coachella in Carrboro, to tell from some of the outfits. Yet the place is also inhabited by local music folks, many of whom played or attended Future Islands shows at local spots like the Nightlight, Kings or The Cave. Plenty of people who lived in Greenville in 2006 and who saw Future Islands' first shows in living rooms and illegal spaces are here, too.
Future Islands unites these seemingly disparate crowds, even if some of the lots cast constant sideeye at each other. (Shout out, in this case, to the muscled dudes who ripped each others' shirts off and started tickling each other halfway through Future Islands' set. That happened!)
During the night, Future Islands' energy only increased, as they worked through songs both new and old—"Seasons (Waiting on You)," "Balance," and "Nu Autobahn." In true festival style, there were fireworks before the set and during the three-song encore. Massive white balloons bounced in the audience. The ones that didn't burst eventually gathered in a tree, where they looked like oversized spider eggs.And there were many moments when it was obvious how special a show this was to Future Islands. Lots of the people featured in the "Tin Man" video, for instance, were in attendance, which wasn't lost on me when Herring closed the song with a primal, elemental scream.
After "A Song for Our Grandfathers," the singer stepped to the side of the stage and silently, almost reverently looked up at the half moon above Carrboro. He let himself have a long moment with the North Carolina night—and then he and his friends played another song at another show.