You never saw a guy in Dockers move like this. Pleated Dockers. Frontman Samuel T. Herring bounded and pogoed across the stage like a gymnast. He bent at the knees and the waist and pointed at audience members and looked them straight in the eye and generally danced like a man overcome throughout Future Islands' sold-out set of baroque, romantic new-wave dance-pop Tuesday night at Bottom of the Hill. It was a sight to see.
Bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, by contrast, stayed stoically in position. Neither broke a smile at any point in the seventy-minute set, nor joined in the sustained dance party driven by the band's beat-heavy pop. Herring, meanwhile, emoted and performed intensely like some Danzig/Meatloaf/Ian Curtis hybrid, his voice -- often compared to Tom Waits' -- ranging from a low growl, nearly metal, to a practiced croon in the higher registers. He's a master of both extremes, as well as the middle ground. He's also one of the indie-music world's most engaging frontmen.
All this was rendered particularly striking by the fact that Herring looked like a young Tom Hanks, or perhaps simply your friend's dad. He began to perspire almost immediately — no surprise given his level of activity — and soon droplets of sweat were tumbling from his chin to the stage. He sweated through a sensible long-sleeve grey cotton shirt, tightly tucked in to said dark-green pleated Dockers behind an equally sensible brown-leather belt. When he sings, he becomes possessed. But in between songs, when he banters with the best of them, he has doe eyes.
Cashion, at his left, wore a mustache and a black t-shirt with a wolf on it. I couldn't tell if he was ironic or just from Baltimore. He provided a solid and charging bottom end to the group's songs: basslines of the Peter Hook/New Order variety, mostly — not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it was perfect. Welmers wore a long-sleeve plaid shirt hardly worth mentioning and, from behind his array of keyboards, synths, and various controllers, modestly filled in the most important part of the band's sound. At times it had the feel of drawn-out trance, syrupy and druggy, while at others it was uptempo and ecstatic.
The crowd, which snatched up all the tickets almost a week in advance — crazy for a Tuesday-night show at Bottom of the Hill featuring three acts from Baltimore — was hugely appreciative. Many dressed like nerds — glasses, bad mustaches, old sweaters — and, as was the case with Cashion, it was near-impossible to discern the posers from the real thing. At that point it ceases to matter.
After the main set, which featured only four songs from the band's new album On the Water, which will be featured in our upcoming Holiday Guide as one of the year's top releases, the crowd demanded an encore. The band obliged, closing with two older numbers, more dancey and less musically dynamic than the band's new work (stream the whole thing here). It became clear that Future Islands is a dance band in the way New Order was a dance band: You can dance (in many cases, you can't help it) , but there's much more to it. In other words, this is dance-pop you can allow yourself to love, even if you're incredibly jaded or a nerd who hates to dance in public. I'm not sure which I am, but in the end, what's the difference? Future Islands is my new favorite band.