SXSW: Future Islands deliver their own brand of art-pop

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Image Credit: Jordan Naylor/Getty Images for SXSW

Thursday night at SXSW, scores of badge-less festivalgoers could be seen lingering on the curb outside of Stubb’s, craning their necks to catch a mere glimpse of Lady Gaga, the ARTPOP diva who was playing the (ahem) Doritos Bold Stage. Which is a shame, because for a just few dollars those fans could’ve walked 20 feet up the street to Cheerup Charlie’s and seen Future Islands, the Baltimore trio that’s been making waves with their own brand of synthy, deliriously fun art-pop.

Without a doubt, Future Islands was the name I heard most often when I asked people what they wanted to see this week. And it’s no wonder: The group’s hypnotic performance on Letterman last week quickly propelled them to famous-on-the-internet status, just in time for their big week in Austin. The level of excitement at their 4AD showcase last night was appropriately high.

Probably the best thing about seeing people see the band for the first time is their inevitable reaction to frontman Samuel T. Herring. His wild, energetic dance moves and soulful growling are certainly the centerpiece of his band’s live shows, but Herring himself looks… unassuming. More than a few people turned to their friends and said something along the lines of, “That’s not really how I pictured him.”

Of course, that didn’t stop anyone from dancing. With Herring’s transfixing stage presence holding the center, the group delivered a sweaty-good set of unabashed dance numbers and soulful slow-jams from their upcoming album Singles. If Future Islands was tired from playing (at least) three shows that day, they certainly didn’t show it — especially not Herring, who prowled the stage like some sort of slacks-wearing jungle cat. (Again, I can’t say enough about how unusual his whole vibe is; Pitchfork excellently quoted Sasha Hecht’s description of Herring as “an undercover cop who just accidentally did coke for the first time.”)

The crowd reciprocated, reaching fever pitch during “Seasons (Waiting On You),” a.k.a. the song they played on Letterman and will probably have to play for the rest of their career. But judging how well the show went down last night, Future Islands probably wouldn’t mind that at all.

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