This post has been updated. See below for details.
Early Friday morning in the high desert outside of Palm Springs, menacing Baltimore synth pop band Future Islands was responsible for a memorably challenging, if ultimately victorious, sold-out gig.
Drawing a wild bunch of uber-fans to journey up a winding, moonlit road to Pappy & Harriet's, the far-out roadhouse at the edge of cellphone coverage, the quartet performed one of its typically rambunctious shows.
Featuring the magnetic, polarizing vocalist/growler Samuel T. Herring prowling the stage, pumping his chest and priming the crowd like a football coach, the band played songs, many from its new album "Singles," to a room packed so tight that at one point a bouncer trying to calm the chaos near the front just stopped and shook his head in defeat.
That part I was forced to witness on the video feed, which offered a less obstructed view -- as in, you could see more than the top of the bands' heads without getting squished or gobbled up.
The group is in the area for its two gigs down the road at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, riding a wave of newfound popularity due to a breakout display of its "Seasons (Waiting for You)" on "The Late Show With David Letterman" that has since gone viral.
If you haven't seen the clip, you should, as the four minutes of airtime explains the varied responses to Herring's bold approach as a lead singer. He did the same at Pappy & Harriet's -- and the other times I've seen the band over its eight-year life. Fearless, focused, passionate in both vocalizing and performance, the singer grooved to the catchy synthesizer, beat and bass-powered songs with a joyous defiance.
Shuffle-stepping his feet with knees bent and rubbery, Herring did this little chicken-head thing with his neck in time with the high-hat while grunting out lines like a death metal singer. Other times he glided his torso to and fro, his arms gesticulating in time while nailing difficult melodic runs. He bent like a parenthesis. He popped his eyes wide, acting out lines he was singing.
During "A Dream of You and Me," he grabbed a woman's hand, crooning in perfect pitch lines of affirmation straight to her: "All that glitters is gold -- don't believe what you've been told," he sang. "People lie, people love, people go/Beauty lies in every soul."
He raced the length of the stage during "Doves," pointing to each person he passed. Another time he poked his finger to his temple like an angry Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." He looked straight into a camera in the corner, singing directly to those watching the video feed near the back.
Over the band's hour-long set, which commenced just before 1 a.m. and closed with last call, Herring, who's built like a fire hydrant, was all there was to watch, a center so magnetic that he eclipsed the other three members (fellow co-founders Gerritt Weimers and William Cashion and touring drummer Denny Bowen) doing the musical work. No matter. They mostly just stood there grooving, confident that Herring was controlling this room with every blurt and bluster of his voice.
It's such an aggressively presented approach that it felt more like a hard-core punk show than one for a group offering sticky melodies and bouncy basslines. If there's such a thing as hard-core synth-pop, Future Islands is leading the charge. Hopefully you'll be able to see the band.
Updated, April 23, 11:45 a.m.: This original version of this post wrongly identified Future Islands’ touring drummer. He is Denny Bowen, not, as originally written, Michael Lowry.
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