Sylvan Esso, made up of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, quickly rose in popularity in their first few years of existence thanks to some strikingly catchy singles and an infectious stage presence. The sold-out Phoenix Concert Theatre was buzzing with excitement, especially for a Tuesday night (May 23), as Toronto concertgoers eagerly awaited performances from their recent second LP, What Now.
Folk-rock singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus opened up the show, playing warm, introspective songs from her debut album No Burden. Dacus and her band were tight and engaging, even if they might have been a better fit with Meath's previous a cappella folk group, Mountain Man. The chatty crowd was clearly impatient to start dancing as the show transitioned from Dacus' more sombre tunes to the pronounced electronic sounds of Sylvan Esso.
Sanborn, behind a small set-up of a laptop and controllers, started their set with What Now's shape-shifting, woozy opening track, "Sound," before the playful Meath, dressed in all black with six-inch platform shoes, walked out and finished the introductory tune.
With just a microphone in hand, Meath escalated her performance with incredibly captivating dance moves during the entirety of their set. Meath's body was controlled by the music — she shimmied and jumped around during the more danceable tracks and practiced a slow-motion contortion while splaying her arms for the slower ballads. Without actually saying any words, Meath guided the audience when to clap and jump, encouraging them to not be ashamed about moving in a way that felt right for the moment.
One notable thing about seeing Sylvan Esso live is that their bangers hit especially hard, with a little more edge than on the records. The show really got going a few songs in with the fidgety rigour of "Kick Jump Twist," followed by the sultry "Dress," a highlight from their eponymous debut. Sanborn, taking no backseat to Meath's fluid movements, was also highly active behind the table, turning knobs with as much passion as one can and using every free moment to step forward to hype up the crowd.
Sylvan Esso take a bare bones approach to pop songwriting, and their songs rarely use more than two or three discernible sounds. On highlight "Hey Mami," the beginning half of the song was carried solely by Meath's delicate voice and a basic clap track, but when the beats kicked in, Meath's vocals rose to the occasion, matching the magnitude of Sanborn's bass-y electronics, filling the room with a cathartic energy.
The build-up from a vocal-heavy intro to a charged-up dance climax was a common tactic used by Sylvan Esso, and it's what made them stand out from their other indie-pop peers last night. On "H.S.K.T." the duo pushed the familiar nursery rhyme line of "my head, my shoulders, knees and toes" to club-level exhilaration, then continued the high by ending the main part of their set with their most accessible song to date, "Radio," showcasing Meath's dynamic, powerful voice. Closing out the encore was "Play It Right," a twinkling, triumphant anthem and the first song the duo wrote for the project.
Sylvan Esso stripped down to only the essentials in their live show, relying heavily on the fact that their songs are immediate earworms. The audience sung and danced along to all of their 75-minute set, from fan-favourite "Coffee" to What Now highlight "Die Young," proving that Sylvan Esso are not only effortlessly likeable but proving consistent over their two-album run. Their minimalist live set-up is refreshing for an electro-pop group; what the show lacked in visual gimmicks or flashy stage props, the duo made up for in heightened intensity and the strength of their simple, melodic songwriting.
Order What Now on vinyl here.