Photography by Robert Altman
If you hadn’t heard, it’s blistering cold up here in the North East. We’re talking icicle fingers within five minutes without proper gloves. Heading back out into that freeze to make the hour-long trek from my apartment in Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen on Thursday evening took a good portion of willpower. But, oh, was it worth it to bask in the heat of Future Islands during their showing at Terminal 5. “Sometimes to get warm on the outside, you gotta warm it up on the inside,” Samuel Herring reasoned before going into “Sun in the Morning”. Inside and out, his band put on a triumphant fire of a performance.
Right off the bat, yes, there was bias going into the show. Consequence of Sound named Future Islands one of their favorite live acts of 2014, and I’ll readily disclose that they’d gotten my vote. However, just because I was coming at it excited to see what I knew would be a stellar show doesn’t diminish the fact that, by God, it was a stellar show.
Even without our accolades, the band has certainly earned a reputation for having a powerful live presence. That’s true despite the fact that they had lived in relative obscurity through three albums prior to March of last year; those who knew, knew. There is something to be said for catching an act before they blow up, and not just because you get to say those immortal words, “I knew them before they were cool.” Rising bands have to give their all to every show in order to make a name for themselves, and those pre-fame shows can have a passion that gives way to contentment or even relief with success. Eight years into their career, it’s remarkable that feeling still permeates Future Island’s set.
Some of that could be due to the fact that, as Herring described it, this was “the biggest show [they’d] ever done in the US.” They were celebrating having finally broken through and found the wider audience their fans likely always thought they warranted. But I don’t think so. I think Herring is 1,000% heart and joy. I think William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry are legitimately – if not subtly, behind their frontman’s wild antics – one of the most efficient and stable bands out there, mainstream or otherwise. There wasn’t a flaw in presentation or slip in groove the whole evening, and the audience’s reaction was a testament to that.
There was, of course, the long-time listeners and die-hards up dead center, dancing about (no match for Herring, naturally) and singing along to cuts like “Balance” and “Doves”. However, I got the sense from a handful of discussions with other audience members that these folks were far from the majority. People in the bathroom line were asking friends if they’d had a chance to check out that David Letterman video. I saw people pulling up pictures to show others what the band would look like. I even had one guy say, “Yeah, I’ve heard the major stuff,” when I asked if he’d heard Singles (he clearly thought I’d meant “their singles”). It was a sold-out house, but you could easily chalk that up to word of mouth as much as anything. Though unlike most acts with “that one song”, Future Islands had every crowd member by the heart, head, and eyes the entire time.
Whenever Herring would gyrate or roll his body, a collective swoon rang out from the females in attendance. His growls brought forth cheers of fanatical pleasure. Most telling of all was what happened after they delivered “Seasons”, a good four songs before they closed their main set: There was no mass exodus. You know what I’m talking about; that moment where the casuals heard what they came to hear and head for the exits. Sure, people put on their coats and snaked to the back, but it was a peppering at best. No doubt some of that was thanks to intelligent set crafting, as the following song, “Tin Man”, was a ferocious scene-stealer. But even as I watched from my perch on the second balcony during the encore break, it seemed like no one really moved. They were hooked, happy to be stranded on this Island of emotional synth pop.
So much of their music is built on that kind of welcoming comfort. Despite all the air punching and yelling and sweat — or perhaps as evidenced by it — Herring wants listeners to be touched by these songs. He introduced “Spirit” (which I now posit may be the actual best song of 2014) by calling it “a song about living under your own rules.” He dedicated “Long Flight” to “all the musicians out there.” He laughed as he told the crowd, “I just wanna be your friend, man,” before “Light House”, a song he said “is about something someone said to me that saved my life.” With full knowledge that this is dipping into over-embellishment, it’s incredibly easy to imagine this band being that kind of savior to someone. The purity, felicity, and vitality imbued in their music and performance is that sincerely fervent.
Before closing the night out with a two-song encore of “Inch of Dust” and “Vireo’s Eye”, Herring, his chest no-doubt bruised from constant pummeling and the shoulder of his shirt ripped to shreds, once again thanked the crowd for joining them. “We played [Terminal 5] back in 2011 and we played to about 100 people,” he noted, profoundly grateful to play before a packed house. Yes, it took one knock-out late night performance and a catchy-to-death single to bring them here, but it’s not a fluke. Singles isn’t a fluke. This album cycle isn’t a fluke. Future Islands have legitimately arrived, and they deserve it not because they simply tried so damn hard for so damn long. They deserve it because, fact is, they’re that good.