On the heels of releasing their excellent fifth album The Far Field, Baltimore-based Future Islands stopped in Toronto for a highly anticipated show that had sold out back in February. Led by the affable Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands gave the Saturday night (May 27) crowd all they had hoped for and more.
Sonically, Future Islands haven't changed over the past decade – icy synths, thick bassline, danceable drum pattern, and of course Herring's open-hearted, over-the-top vocal style. But to reduce them to these simple elements is unfair and deceiving because the band really comes alive during their fabled live shows. Thanks to their career-altering television debut on the Letterman show in 2014, this is no longer a secret.
Yet the starry-eyed Herring performed like he is still out to prove something even more, pumping feverous adrenaline into their established formula. Only four songs in, on "A Dream of You and Me," Herring's checkered shirt was already drenched with sweat but miraculously stayed neatly tucked into his black Levi's for the duration of the show.
Herring plays two characters on stage – on the slower, reflective songs like "Walking Through That Door" and "Light House," Herring is the gentle, advice-giving pal, speaking to the crowd with spirited, pleading eyes. During the more muscular arrangements like their breakout song "Seasons (Waiting on You)" and "Long Flight" from 2010's In Evening Air, he mutates into a man possessed by his prose, picking imaginary objects out of thin air, pondering them and passing them along to the outstretched arms in the front row. Herring is often obsessed with the spotlights at the sides of the stage, gesturing towards them like they are divine beings and at one point kneeling and singing most of "A Song for Our Grandfathers" at a light in the floor in front of him.
For the one-two punch of "Before the Bridge" and "Balance" from 2011's On The Water, Herring crouched down and stared right into the faces of the audience, dripping sweat and ensuring his gospel was really heard, a touching moment for each individual.
There's no doubt Herring is one of the more unpredictable frontman in rock – he will spontaneously growl or scream at any point in a song only to go back to his more thoughtful voice moments later. By squatting, jumping, kicking, hitting the floor and himself, licking his arms – Herring has a huge reserve of physical movements that somehow fit each song, captivating to watch and weird as hell.
The other members of the band take a comfortable backseat to Herring, but lay the important groundwork for Herring's theatrics. Bassist William Cashion is the perfect anti-thesis of Herring – his endlessly grooving licks are powerful and essential while Cashion himself doesn't move around too much. Cashion's throbbing basslines are the backbone of the Future Islands sound, and it was most apparent on The Far Field's "Cave," which also saw Herring running back and forth across the front of the stage, inadvertently spraying the crowd with a misty stream of body sweat and spit.
Near the end of the show, prompted by keyboardist Gerrit Welmers' repetitive chiming synth, Future Islands launched into long-time fan-favourite "Tin Man" — one of the more electrifying songs in their repertoire. Bathed in red light, Herring sauntered around until the song's climax, screeching "I am the Tin Man" and adding a violent rush of uppercuts.
Future Islands' 90-minute, 23-song set was more than generous, playing from across their entire discography including "Beach Foam" and "Little Dreamer" from their 2008 debut, Wave Like Home, in the encore. Sure, Herring is a spectacle of performance, but musically the four-piece is damn tight and the rhythms are uncomplicated and highly addictive. Future Islands are now touring veterans, and they know how to pace and order their set with new and older material without ever losing momentum. With Herring as their frontman, there is never a dull moment.