Black Box, Galway by David Molloy
As one of Galway’s best venues is on track to be replaced with a larger, more upscale cultural hub by the time 2020 rolls around, the good people behind the Roisin Dubh must have sensed an opportunity to make the most of its last couple of years and get the next venue off on the right track. Future Islands are probably the biggest band to have played at the venue in quite a few years, and if nothing else, tonight shows that the time is right for the city to have a midsized venue that can act as a middle ground between the warm intimacy of the Roisin Dubh and the large (though admittedly rarely used for music) Pearse Stadium, where Ed Sheeran will play next year. The Black Box has played this role before, but with big names in music being sporadic and usually limited to the Arts Festival. The lack of bells and whistles around the place – while undeniably charming in its own way – does suggest a building in need of an upgrade.
Luckily this particular band don’t need high-budget gimmickry: frontman Samuel Herring is clearly excited to play here (he mentions towards the end of the set that booker Gugai has been trying to get them for years) and they’re ready to let the songs do the talking. I talked with several people before the show started who stated they have been fans of the band since their early days, before a certain talk-show appearance dramatically raised their stock (though more on that later), and it’s always warming to see a crowd go just as nuts for ‘Beach Foam’ as they do for ‘Ran’ and ‘Spirit’. The band would probably be the first to admit that they don’t have a particular inclination to stray too far from a particular path, sticking with musically uplifting, lyrically melancholic indie-pop, but it’s a style they do very well, and it’s one that’s improved tenfold performed live.
And the dancing. Oh, the dancing.
By sheer tyrannical force of charisma alone, Herring is one of the most engaging frontmen around. It’s almost fruitless trying to find a way to describe his performance that hasn’t already been said or turned into gifs ad nauseum. A combination of tics, favoured moves, lapses into death-metal growls, moving like a silk curtain in a breeze one second and the ED-209 from Robocop that’s just discovered soul the next – he’s like a quantum frontman that’s as unpredictable as he is vaguely formulaic. The audience cheers for his lapses into limb-akimbo like they do a favourite song. Though his antics have at times been reduced to merely a meme, it’s a harsh reduction – these are emotional songs performed with sincerity bordering on the cute, and his unique performing style adds considerable heft – whether to underscore the feeling behind the lyrics, or to gently mock the idea of rock-star grandstanding.
Curfew bedamned, the band start their encore well past 11 o’clock, treating the faithful to songs from their debut Wave Like Home like they’re playing a venue three times the size. Here’s hoping next time the Black Box’s latest rebirth can accommodate.
Iveagh Gardens, Dublin by Ken Fallon
It’s forgivable if a sizeable chunk of the audience tonight to see Future Islands are here purely to witness the strange dance contortions of frontman Samuel T. Herring. When Future Islands appeared on the David Letterman show in the US and Later with Jools on the BBC in 2014, it was the singer’s idiosyncratic moves that resulted in the clips going viral. Here was a man possessed of something untold, completely absent of any self-conscious appeasements to the notion of how a frontman should be. That shimmying, hip-swinging, swirl-dance, the beating of the chest, the anachronistic death-metal growl – we really had seen nothing like him before, which was quite a feat. It was only later that the actual music of Future Islands became worthy of our attention, too. Up until then, Future Islands were a relative curio on the American indie scene – a decent, guitar-less, indietronica act with nods to New Order and OMD, gigging relentlessly, working hard to make a break. (Major kudos to anyone who claimed to be a fan when they supported Dan Deacon in Dublin eight years ago!).
So they come to Dublin at the end of a triumphant string of shows around Ireland, touring on the back of fifth album, the excellent The Far Field. Live, it quickly becomes clear the other three members of the band behind Herring are polar opposites to the frontman: still, quiet and low-key, they only serve to accentuate the larger-than-life mannerisms of their vocalist. Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers barely looks up throughout the evening while touring drummer Michael Lowry keeps a consistently precise and economic beat. Next to him, bassist William Cashion is impassive but is secretly enjoying every second. They are happy to allow their frontman to own the stage. Herring prowls from one side to the other, teetering over the edge, eyeballing the front-row. He breaks into deranged Cossack dancing, slams the back of his head, slams the ground, beats his chest so loudly it can be heard over the music. On paper, it sounds deranged but in reality it’s simply an exuberant desire to unleash his demons in whatever way he can. He never stops, from opener ‘Ran’ from the new album right through to ‘Little Dreamer’ at the very end, by which time his bright red shirt is so drenched in sweat it’s turned another colour altogether, burgundy perhaps.
Generously, they give us ‘A Dream of You and Me’ early in the set and it’s a portent for a fun night to come. Despite the melancholic undertow to Herring’s yearning lyrics, it’s counteracted by a triumphant sense of fun and communality. The willingness to bare his soul, to put it all out there: failed relationships, inner turmoil, whatever, allows the crowd to lose their inhibitions a little and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. It’s a beautiful thing. Later ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ has a couple of lads crowd-surfing and middle-aged couples embracing a little closer. New songs ‘Cave’ and ‘Aladdin’ reveal a band whose creative streak and moment in the sun has a long way still to run.
For the encore, they return in ill-fitting Ireland football jerseys and dedicate a song to Seamus Coleman, apropos of nothing. They each have their names emblazoned on the back. Really, how could you not love them? What’s not to like about a group of misfits who, through sheer hard work and a shared passion, have managed to break through to headline outdoor shows like this one in the beautiful Iveagh Gardens? Under a rare cloudless sky, Future Islands brought the joy – unaffected, unpretentious joy, the purest form of it. What a treat to witness it first hand.
Future Islands photographed for State by Leah Carroll.