Samuel T. Herring is one of the most captivating performers you will ever see live.
Naively, I only half-expected this to be true before witnessing the frontman of Baltimore via Greenville, North Carolina, synthpop band Future Islands at San Francisco’s The Independent on Tuesday night. It wasn’t until the band’s early in-store performance at SF’s Amoeba Records the same day did the truth start to sink in. Even though I’d been obsessing over the group’s last two efforts — 2010’s lyrically-wistful In Evening Air and 2011’s emotionally-focused On the Water — experiencing Future Islands in the live setting rather than on record is a universe-sized difference.
Between songs, Herring may as well be a just another lovable country boy who talks a bit too much for his own genteel good. Once a song begins, however, his transformation is so pronounced, he makes the Jekyll/Hyde persona seem like a dude who’s just a bit crankier than usual. With a devastating combination of Shakespearean theatrics, lyrical-miming, rigorous chest-beating, faux-self-mutilation, Herring finds himself artfully borrowing from some of music’s greatest frontmen — Ian Curtis, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, and Henry Rollins are just a few who spring to mind. But even before getting a second glance at the spectacle that is Future Islands, I had to deal with the unfortunate complications of being on — or, in this instance, not on — the guest list for the press.
As opener Xxbrx’s screeching guitars and yelping vocals blared from inside the SF venue, I waited, argued, and waited some more for the ticketbooth woman, who informed me I wasn’t getting into the show. As luck would have it, however, good old country boy Herring happened to be outside the club, and after a brief conversation the singer was more than pleased to pull a few strings and get me inside. Still, my inability to review Xxbrx’s set accurately was unavoidable — a friend who did witness Xxbrx described the band as “cut-up beach ball/toga-wearing maniacs with insanely out-of-tune guitars.” Sounds pretty good to me.
If Future Island’s set at Amoeba was a lesson in how a performer catches a crowd off-guard, the Independent, on the other hand, was a moment of pure excitability and enthusiasm. For instance, Herring’s tucked-shirt and pleaded pants, crab-like dance moves, facial contortions, and lyrical-pantomiming made a few teenage fans giggle with confusion at the record store. Here, however, they were met with thunderous applause and riotous frenzy. On set highlight “Inch of Dust,” Herring punctuated the song’s opening electro snare-drum hits with a whip-cracking motion as if every lashing became more and more cathartic. “Give Us the Wind,” however, may have been the band’s most yearning and triumphant. “Don’t bless me!” Herring pleaded, “We don’t want your blessings! Give me the pen! Give me the Sword!” For a moment, Herring had swept an entire crowd into singing a genuine anthem — an anthem not only about “seeking truth” but about how that truth may only be found in taking on the most difficult parts of life’s journey. Or some poetic junk like that.
Of course, it’s not at all fair to give accolades to just one man. Bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers are not only crucial to Future Islands sound, their stone-faced, twin-stoic stage presence and inspired musical conceptions enhance Herring’s emotional fanfare to a stratospheric height. While Cashion has considerable mastery of Peter Hook bass technique, he’s also arrived at a style very much his own. Unafraid to venture into higher-octave lead lines, he’s also more than capable sneaking in some very clever strummed lower fifths and thirds. Welmers, on the other hand, is a synth and arranging wizard. With a constant blank expression, he appears to know his role in the band better than most musicians behind a keyboard. Triggering beats, software, and lead synth lines that sound as if they hopped off the grooves of an Erasure 7-inch, he’s the workhorse and backbone of the band.
One of the best moments in which the three members of Future Islands truly shone brightest was in fan-favorite “Walking Through That Door.” Lyrically, it’s about nostalgia for one’s past home. However, Herring’s dramatized enactment of holding an invisible figure’s hand couldn’t have felt more in-the-moment and emotionally present. Welmers’s knife-like synth-line — strangely reminiscent of the theme song to 1980s classic Gremlins — cut through Cashion’s wobbling bass strokes. “Vireo’s Eye” was met with a dance party, but on “Tin Man,” Herring unresolved his theatrics and continued a mime-like gesture of tearing at his face even though the song had long ended. “Long Flight” was dedicated to Xxbrx, since it was their last show together — crowd surfing ensued.
When it came time for an encore, I had little doubt the group would reach a bit further back into their catalog. What came next was two of my all-time favorites: Wave Like Home’s “Old Friend” and “Little Dreamer.” While the former didn’t exactly have the characteristic ecstatic bounce as on the record, the latter was a moment of true inspiration. Watching Herring sing, “When I was just a child / A lonely boy / I held on to my dreams / Like they could run from me,” was truly touching as he gingerly imitated two running feet in the familiar motion back-and-forth motion with his index and middle fingers. It was then that I realized the range and scope of this man’s performing abilities. Whether he was pounding away on his chest, pantomiming a scar across his neck, pulling out his heart by hand, taking communion and watching the bread turn to dust, he was also capable of expressing a powerful concept with just a simple, pure gesture of two feet running along — dreams fleeting. Though I don’t claim to know what the name Future Islands really means, I like to think it has something to do with those two words. As long as Herring and co. are expressing such complex feelings in such a satisfying and engaging manor, I doubt they’ll have trouble finding an audience.