Even before the horrible, tragic hit-and-run last night, Austin was dark last night. I’ve been coming to SXSW for six years now, and while prevalent drunkenness and corporate sponsorships have been a big part of the throwdown for as long as I can remember, they haven’t combined into a terrifying kaleidoscope the way I’ve seen them do for the last few nights. Everywhere you walk, you see various corporations aggressively marketing their shit to you, and you see people so drunk they can barely stand up — if, in fact, they can. Based on what I saw last night, this feels like the year that the corporate party-animal aspect of the festival effectively shoves the music-nerddom into the corner. I saw a lot of good artists last night — Windhand, Sam Smith, YG — but I only saw one group who cut through all that darkness, and that band was Future Islands.
The Baltimore band has been great live for years, but they’ve taken a big leap forward by letting Samuel T. Herring flex a deeply powerful stage persona. Built like a ’50s weightlifter, pale and hearty, in a tight black T-shirt with his hair greased to the side, Herring projected a coiled masculinity that has nothing to do with bro-dom. As seen on the band’s great Letterman performance, his dance moves are strange but heartfelt and unafraid, and it’s an absolute blast to watch him in person. He prowls the stage like a panther, slaps his chest like he was in Madball, does the Night At The Roxbury head-nod with crazy aplomb. His voice, too, flies from piercing theatrical drama-kid wail to death-metal gurgle-scrape and makes it sound easy; I pray it holds up over all the SXSW shows this band will play. Last night’s KCRW showcase was in Haven, a bottle-service club with a way-too-high dickhead ratio, and it was not an ideal context for a band like Future Islands, but they made it work. I imagine they could make just about anything work.
The band’s new album Singles turns its synth-rock throb into something stickier and friendlier than it’s been on previous records, and on the evidence of last night, those songs sound amazing live. If you’re down in Austin, you’ll have plenty more chances to catch them live, and I suggest you avail yourself. If you’re not, they’re touring hard, so you’ll probably still get a chance. Take advantage and see them someplace relatively small while you still can.
[Photo via Instagram]