In 2014, after the release of their fourth album, Singles, Baltimore-based Future Islands were propelled from relative obscurity to immediate relevance in the wake of their performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Three years later, their fifth album — second with indie behemoth 4AD — was released to considerably less pomp. Nevertheless, The Far Field (2017) built on the success of Singles and confirmed the band’s status as the best synth-pop revival act in the business.
A longtime fan of Future Islands, I was somewhat unsure of what to expect going into their show at Royal Oak Music Theatre. Frontman Sam Herring (a.k.a. Hemlock Ernst) has gained renown for his absurd energy and oddly acrobatic dancing and having seen the band once before, in 2015, I knew what he was capable. I wondered, however, how Far Field, a less vocals-driven album than Singles or On the Water (2011), would translate to the stage.
Much to my delight, Future Islands seemed only to have become better performers in the time since Singles was released. Show openers “Beauty of the Road” followed by “Ran,” along with several others from Far Field, were tight and forward-moving, with a sense of urgency even more palpable than possessed by their studio versions. In front of the caricatured calmness of straight-faced keyboardist-synth master Gerrit Welmers, bassist William Cashion and (considerably less stoic) drummer Michael Lowry, Herring’s passion had no difficulty asserting itself as the most alluring aspect of the performance.
Indeed, fewer than three songs in, Herring — looking more like your typical lumberjack than a touring musician — had already sweat completely through his plaid button-up. Throughout the set, he would occasionally smack his chest with the fist not holding the mic, and the wet, slapping sound could actually be heard through the speakers. When the light was just right, you could even see the droplets of sweat violently flung from the fabric over his heart, an unexpectedly poignant reminder of the immediacy of the show and the emotion it encapsulated.
In some ways, a Future Islands show is straightforward. With just drums, synth and bass, there’s not much room for improvisation, nor do the songs themselves allow much space for deviation. At the same time, though, most of Future Islands’ albums — Far Field and their debut, Wave Like Home (2008) — were recorded without drums, but played with them on tour. The result is popular favorites from 2010’s In Evening Air (“Long Flight,” “Vireo’s Eye”) and On the Water (”Balance”) originally winding and unconcerned with reaching a destination transformed into pounding anthems. Highlights of the show were almost all cuts from In Evening Air, at once atmospheric and driving.
“Inch of Dust,” in particular, stood out among the rest, as did the devastating combo of “Seasons” directly into “Tin Man” and then “Spirit,” three of their most earnest and melodic songs across all five albums. Though likely among their less well-known tunes, “Inch of Dust,” off the backside of In Evening Air, found Herring at his most beastly. He howled, a furious ball of passion bouncing off the walls and down to the floor as the lights strobed, while Cashion and Welmers harped on the same chord, each time louder than the last until it crashed, all at once, like a dam finally overtaken by the incessant pounding of the river at its back.
In addition to his now-signature dance moves, another of the delightful surprises of a Future Islands show is Herring’s voice. After no more than a song or so, it’s clear that he has something special. His range and natural, emotive rasp lend themselves well to the band’s generally melancholic, if energetic, songs. Live, he takes it to another level, calling on the ghosts of punk’s angry past to conjure up a hearty, grating shout. On Thursday, he peppered in his invigorating growl wherever he saw fit, drawing at first stunned silence, immediately followed by applause and a chorus of “whoop”s.
As a band, Future Islands boast an impressive energy that both contrasts and complements the nostalgia innate to their genre quite well. More than that, though, they are honest, unassuming and real, through and through. They are performers, no doubt, but they aren’t putting on an act. I remember reading a quote somewhere about how Herring looks like the guy checking out next to you at the grocery store, and there’s something really powerful (not to mention true) about that. Not only does he look like your average 33-year-old — with an endearing, quickly-receding hairline — but he acts like one too, a quality that bolsters his image as, in a sense, the everyman’s poet.
Before playing certain songs, Herring gave quick backstories — “North Star,” for example, was written about a long evening he spent trapped at the Detroit airport — one of which was particularly striking. During the show’s encore, before the only song they played from Wave Like Home, “Little Dreamer,” he spoke about a 10-year-old love that still haunts him, the beauty of it and the pit of sorrow that wells up within him. He spoke with a candor, tears welling up in his eyes, that made his words incapable of being dismissed. That raw emotion, from the highs of “Seasons” or “Spirit” to the goosebumps-inducing melancholy preceding “Little Dreamer” is ultimately why you go to a Future Islands show and why there is no doubt in my mind that they are one of the best touring bands today.