Live Music: Future Islands, Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, 11/15/11

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

Straight out of Baltimore by way of Greenville, North Carolina, Future Islands brought their own brand of crazy to Bottom of the Hill on Tuesday night. The show, headlined by one of the Wham City collective’s flagship groups, was among the most entertaining live musical moments I’ve experienced in recent months, and I stood there, along with the rest of the sold-out crowd, unable to wipe the stupid smile off my face throughout their set, immersed in the intoxicating force of nature that is this band I’ve come to love very much. Though their newest record, On the Water, is a more brooding, forlorn affair than In Evening Air, the ecstatically dancey full-length debut that first garnered them scores of accolades upon its release in early 2010, none of the mania has gone missing from their live show. In other words, despite the somber subject matter of lost love and crushing heartbreak, when it comes to delivering the goods live, Future Islands proved on Tuesday night to be harnessing even more of that deranged catharsis than ever before.

But that all came later. First we were treated to an opening slot by a Zach Galifianakis reminiscent (in both appearance and stage presence) standup comedian named Peter O’Connell, which didn’t do much for me but inspired a few laughs from the rest of the audience, and then an utterly strange supporting set by Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. A duo that came out hard with the raw and pulsing “Rats” that went something like “THE RATS ARE CLIMBING ALL OVER ME!”, they veered from doomy and hypnotic tracks that recalled Ian Curtis to a brash hardcore assault, and it was all very compelling; even as some people winced and reached for earplugs their music incited confusion and discussion, which goes a long way in making for a memorable live set. I dug it. But I was there, like most others in the room, to behold Future Islands, and by the time they finally came on just around 11pm the venue was already sweating hard with anticipation.

And as expected, the band delivered. A trio led by vocalist Sam Herring and anchored by Gerrit Welmers on keys and synth and William Cashion on bass and guitar, each part is equally integral to the music’s whole of course, but it’s impossible to not lock into Herring when he performs. While Welmers and Cashion keep their contact with the audience minimal, barely even looking up throughout the entire set, Herring is a theatrical powerhouse. He is both parts devilish and melancholic, staring straight into the eyes of his audience members, sweating profusely and executing some awesomely ridiculous dance moves that look even more ridiculous in his choice of attire (business casual, in black slacks with belt and neatly tucked-in long sleeve crewneck). His voice, oscillating between a ferocious, guttural howl and tender croon, drives the spirit of the music and he is absolutely captivating, unleashing the same range and wealth of emotion that inspires his songwriting to the dimly lit Bottom of the Hill stage, which he effectively, and completely, conquered.

With their strange singular blend of synth and soul, Future Islands have a way of simultaneously breaking your heart while blowing your mind, serving as a reminder of how powerful art can really be when it channels the joy, pain, and darkness present in life and love. When it comes to unequivocally satisfying music, Future Islands are hard to beat.