This past Friday night on Brown’s Island, Future Islands put on the best show in Friday Cheers’ long, rich history.
This past Friday night on Brown’s Island, Future Islands put on the best show in Friday Cheers’ long, rich history. Sure, you could disagree and it’s not as if we haven’t seen plenty of other shows worthy of the title over the past thirty-one years. Alabama Shakes, Zac Brown Band, Dawes, The Roots, St. Paul & The Broken Bones; even Jason Isbell last month was a strong contender for this title. But none of these bands put on the all-around performance that Future Islands did. Stunning. Raw. Dramatic. Unpredictable. It was everything you could ever hope for from a concert and yet still so much more.
Future Islands have an unavoidable buzz around them – I mean, who still hasn’t seen their performance on Letterman from last year? The Maryland quartet was easily the biggest nab of the summer for Venture Richmond, but in an setting where most expect to hear long jam sessions, there was at least a little doubt as to how the lingering and spacious synth music would come across on the island. On top of that, the gloomy weather of the week persisted and while it thankfully didn’t rain, the autumn temperature and overcast sky might have sealed the deal for some people on the fence about going.
For those who used either reason not to go, regret is about to become your new best friend.
Bridging the Friday Cheers “style” and the electronic space was Richmond’s own White Laces with a set showcasing why they’re undoubtedly one of the true heavyweights in the local music scene. As always, the shoegaze band provided an exciting mix of fuzzy guitars and textured electronica within the confines of the shoegaze genre that was so prevalent on their stand-out album, Trance, last year. Opening at Friday Cheers is no easy feat, but Landis Wine and company delivered as best as possible, highlighted by a remarkable Breeders cover that came after the band announced they had to essentially fill time for a bit. Fill time the band did with an extra twenty minutes of music that was surprisingly more spirited and lively than the band’s great set before. If you came late to the show on Friday, you missed an atypical, but stellar set from one of Richmond’s truly premier band and just learned a valuable lesson for any Richmond show: always see the opener.
As the crowd continued to fill in as close as possible to the stage, Future Islands took the stage and the crowd got its first taste of Samuel T. Herring’s Jekyll & Hyde act here. Quiet, modest, and unassuming between songs, the singer would erupt with emotion during each song, even if it was a particularly restrained song like the opener “Back In The Tall Grass.” On Singles, it’s a clear highlight, but one that has its strategic outbursts that are overshadowed by the mostly serene melody throughout. Live, much like the rest of the band’s show, it was a completely different story that quickly set the pace of the night.
Calling Samuel T. Herring Hyde or even The Hulk as someone close to me commented might not be fair though. At all times, Herring is completely in control. Of course, he was in control of the whole island from the moment the first song began, but even when his mind looks to be long gone, Herring is able to reign himself back fully. He loses himself in each song, but has the inept ability to regain clarity almost instantly. He’s a complete madman on stage, yet everything he does is calculated and methodical. Each song pushes his intensity more and more and you find yourself wondering just how much he has left to give. Just as the thought finishes, he unleashes even more, almost as if to drive home the fact that you really do not know what’s going to happen next and you better not even blink because you’ll miss it.
The band lacks an electric guitarist, even if William Cashion picks up the mantle occasionally, but the band has an unconventional one in Herring himself. The way Herring uses his body and voice during performance, going from one extreme to the other with different effects each time – it’s eerily similar to the way most guitarists approach their own playing. There are confines here and there, but there’s also plenty of space to explore at all times. He’s almost Hendrix at times in this approach, in that the way he pieces together the parts of his performance are almost mind-boggling. It starts of as “how does he do that” and quickly transforms into “how did he think of that?” The Hendrix comparison could even be explored further by Herring ending the night on a slow groove, much like Hendrix did with the title track on Are You Experienced back in 1967. It sounds crazy, but most descriptions of Herring’s on-stage performance do as well.
Herring was obviously great, but without the band, the performance really does fall flat. I don’t mean the music either. The actual band itself on stage – that’s what gives Future Islands’ live show depth and contrast. At the forefront, you have this feral singer who’s beating his chest one minute and solemnly looking to the sky the next. Behind him, a trio of musicians who show some emotion at times, but for the most part are extremely static figures that allow Herring to really stand out. Without the dichotomy between the two, Herring isn’t a madman to celebrate, he’s someone you get a straightjacket for. With the band behind him, his antics are accentuated as moments of lucidity and rage in each song, an internal struggle with whatever melody is going on in the background.
The beauty of Friday’s performance was that there were a million different ways you could describe it. Maybe you could compare him to a committed interpretative dancer. Maybe you could describe the guttural vocal moments as his inability to process the emotions of the song. It could go on forever and that’s the beauty of it. If you asked everyone there, they’d all say it was amazing for sure, but ask them why and I guarantee the reason will be different each and every time. Just like any piece of art, it’s not how it resonates with people, just that it does across the board…and it did here by far.
It’s a lofty statement and not one to be thrown around lightly, but without a doubt, Future Islands put on the best show Friday Cheers has ever had and one that I’m having a hard time believe is going to even be equaled anytime soon, let alone surpassed.