With the viral "Letterman" performance and an album destined for top-10 lists, Future Islands is one of the breakout stories of the year in indie music.
On Friday, the veteran band from North Carolina (via Baltimore) paid its first 2014 visit to Pittsburgh, a city that frontman Samuel T. Herring said factored into many Future Islands songs, him having once dated a girl from here. He was greeted by an adoring sold-out crowd at Mr. Smalls, a big jump from the 100 or so people he recalled coming the last time the band played the Millvale sanctuary.
It was apparent from the opener, "Back in the Tall Grass," that conditions were less than ideal: the lighting was lower than usual, making it hard to see his face (and those beaming eyes), and the bottom-y mix made his words hard to decipher. And with Herring, you need to hear 'em, because his refreshingly irony-free, heart-on-sleeve lyrics are the core of Future Islands.
His backing trio of just synth, bass and drums laid down New Wave-y dance-funk grooves in a set that went big on fourth album "Singles." Among the sweet synth-rock gems were "Sun in the Morning" and "Doves" -- with its "woo-hoo" retro-soul chorus -- and set-closing "Spirit," all songs that aren't afraid to let in some light. A more downbeat beauty was the tearful "Light House" ("I've seen the way that bodies lie/and bodies tend to break"), of which he said, "If you have a friend in a dark place, just be there for them when you can."
This all comes from a rugged, old-school romantic who looks like mid-period Brando. He has an arsenal of moves that pump the crowd every time: a low, gorilla-style dance maneuver (that was a little hard to see on that stage), a beating of the chest and a sudden, jarring death growl, used to great effect on the dramatic "Tin Man" and "Fall From Grace."
The song that had people pushing closer to the stage was "Seasons (Waiting on You)," another song of love and longing and the band's new calling card. Herring, as he does, poured his soul into the most passionate single from "Singles," tugging at his shirt and growling, "I've been hanging on you/I've been waiting on you!"
It's effective. And yet, while it's understood that Future Islands wants to be sonically unique, it's hard not to think that a well-placed burst of electric guitar wouldn't make it that much better.
FUTURE ISLANDS SET LIST
Back in the Tall Grass
Sun in the Morning
A Dream of You and Me
Before the Bridge
A Song for Our Grandfathers
Walking Through That Door
Seasons (Waiting on You)
Fall from Grace