“I could watch them every night of my life, and it would not be enough.” – Siobhán Kane on Future Islands‘ performance at Whelan’s last Saturday.
Future Islands have a way of recalling ghosts, the dead, painful memories; then, through sheer force of will, shattering the melancholy through radiant, driving music, which acts like something of a force of nature. Their music doesn’t quite change the pain, but it honours it somehow – stemming the flow, and bandaging the wound with a creative salve. Their concert in Whelans was the last night of their 24-date European tour that has taken in Denmark and Holland, Scotland and France – but as they take to the stage, it isn’t long before Herring talks of their particular kinship for this place – “we have been looking forward to this night for so long”.
Samuel T. Herring, William Cashion and J. Gerrit Welmers are curious, engaging characters, who have evolved from early incarnation Art Lord & The Self Portraits to Future Islands, which perhaps their move in 2008 from North Carolina to Baltimore solidified. Future Islands began in earnest in 2006, but was properly heralded with their release Wave Like Home in 2008 (which contained the swaying Beach Foam, replete with the sound of seagulls); however, it was really 2010’s In Evening Air that evidenced a majesty that was impossible to ignore, and which was further explored in last year’s shimmeringly beautiful On the Water, which pleasingly illustrated their inexhaustible quest to understand this mysterious, shape-shifting life.
Each record has revealed enormous depth, through layers of vulnerability, from (possibly my favourite song) the aching, regretful Inch of Dust, to the wrenching duet with Jenn Wesner of Wye Oak on The Great Fire. Wye Oak are another Baltimore-based band that deal in the often cruel terrain of the human heart, much like alumni Beach House, who Future Islands have also worked with, enlisting Victoria Legrand’s dusky vocal for a remix (by Jones) of Little Dreamer, which was on their 2009 12″ Post Office Wave Chapel (a collaboration between them and NYC art collective Free Danger). Baltimore, like the Randy Newman song goes, is full of “hard times in the city“, but its “marble stair”, and previous life as an important seat of industry, mixed with the present reality of dilapidated grandeur provides a striking landscape for the creativity of these bands, eerily prescient in Balfe’s I Dream I Dwelt in Marble Halls, (which pops up in Joyce’s story Clay in Dubliners) going some way to describing the messy beauty of that city, whose reach seems long and poetic.
But tonight it is Future Islands’ reach that is long and poetic, as they move between their second and third records in a kind of reverie that mesmerises, nurturing the audience towards something that goes beyond the boundaries of live music, which Herring ensures through his visceral, searing performance, clasping hands with as many people as possible, and literally dripping sweat over the willing masses in a hugely physical, emotional kind of prayer. Prayer is a word that goes well with their work, since there is a sincerity, and almost meditative quality present, whether captured in the sound of the warm synths that often sound more like an organ, or through the beats that emerge on Balance – everything about their music is nourishing, much like a prayer hopes to be.
Though prayers can be offered in thanks, they are often said out of despair and longing – two themes that permeate much of the band’s work, yet they frame these themes in an atmosphere of defiant romanticism, casting a sensual eye over the most devastating of experiences. Sometimes it feels like more than a concert; the dubby sound on Before the Bridge whips the audience up to the point where it felt like it was 1994, and we were protesting the Criminal Justice Bill in support of our fellow ravers over the sea (there were people stage right literally standing on chairs slapping the ceiling in pure abandon); and Walking Through That Door continued the insistent, almost wayward beats, and at one point they introduced a new song Lighthouse, which was all lovely, twinkling warmth, like a long deep kiss, full of the humanity that fuels this band.
Tin Man was a particular highlight, not only because the three men are reminiscent of the characters that journey with Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road (captured beautifully on the artwork to accompany that particular song), but because of the swathes of sound that ranged from steel drums, to deep, furious bass, and Herring’s baying, inimitable vocal, which goes from a boyish whimper to a manly growl in moments, truly relaying that weird place between silence and screaming that is so much part of the private heart, but rarely gets to be heard.
An Apology provides glowing, jaunty synths to accompany “the weight of the world” Herring sings of, and that weight is further alleviated with the organ-like sound “seeking truth” on Give us the Wind, and the sense of being by the sea on a balmy day on On the Water, which unfurls itself, delicately, over the course of five minutes, ultimately building up to a cascading shower of poppy synths, and droning guitar. Inch of Dust is another personal highlight, because it is such an unguarded, honest song, and when performed live still sends shivers, with its glitchy opening that sounds like a metronome, reminding us of how little time we have, no matter how long we get. Cashion’s bass guitar acts like another kind of narrative to compliment Herring’s utterly devastated, careworn vocal, as he sings of being separated from his true love “a part of me you have/ a part of me you hold/ apart from me you stand/ and there’s parts that you had stole” which, though full of anger, eventually becomes a reiteration of the existence of that love, no matter how estranged, and Herring sings it as if it might be his last breath, his legacy.
However, there is still, somehow, time for more, with Grease becoming something of a distillation of their journey and continued impulse: “Time for the show/ And the road was long and slow/ And I’m growing old/ I was a boy not long ago/ What happens to youth?/ What happened to truth?/ What happened to me?/ This song won’t change a thing/ No, but the people want it all/ The dancing bear, the bouncing ball“, yet the band is far more than the “dancing bear” or “bouncing ball”, they are evidence of what happens if you don’t give up. They are also one of the most polite bands out there; hard-working, lovely people, who spent some of their performance deservedly thanking those who have supported them to varying degrees here tonight, at Whelans, a place they hold so dear; including Patrick Kelleher and his Cold Dead Hands, who have supported the band before, and who remain one of the most interesting, protean and brilliant propositions to come out of Ireland in years.
Part of Future Islands’ own brilliance is in their acceptance that we are all frail, and more than a little messy – sweetly captured when, for Long Flight, Herring finds himself crawling on the floor, immersed in the song, but in doing so, accidentally pulls one of the cables out, with the song ending abruptly. However, in an almost philosophical coda (and Herring shares not only his first name, but birthday with Samuel Beckett) they attempt the song again for their encore, with Herring wryly quipping “that’s what I get for crawling around like a baby”. Of course they pull it off beautifully, showing that if not in life, at least in song you sometimes get second chances.
In the last ten years, there have been a few bands (The Walkmen, Miracle Fortress) that have really stolen my heart, and who can translate their brilliance live, providing a traveling sensation with their music, resulting in a hazy weightlessness, where you feel everything just might turn out okay. Future Islands are probably at the forefront of these favourites, because they risk something with each performance, and Herring’s lyrics are achingly intimate renderings of struggle, and the kind of heartbreak that perhaps cannot be recovered from; yet here he is tonight, on stage, upright (though sometimes floor-bound), inhabiting a space that is naked in its honesty, and raw in its intensity. It is not just that they are honest, it is that they are true believers – in romance, and the mystery of life, as Herrings sings on On the Water, they don’t believe in “life and love and nothing“, but rather, “life and love and something“, beyond what society dictates as ‘normal’ markers of living, to a place that astonishes, moves and comforts. When Herring pretends to strip away the mask from his face at the end of Tin Man, he is really stripping away the mask of everyday living to reveal what really lies beneath mainstream society (that at present is obsessed with social media, immediate satisfaction, and dwindling attention spans, replacing true connection with synthetic), to reveal the only reality that matters, the bloody, delicate heart, that though shattered, still beats.
Later in the concert, Herring shouts “I know people in Ireland, I’ve got family here!”, and the rapturous cries of appreciation suggests his family tree just got bigger and stronger – ties that bind. Earlier in the night with On the Water, he sings “can I be the one who saves your life?”, and the thing is, Future Islands are one of the bands that really do “save”, reaffirming the importance of music and arts power to explore, reflect, understand and heal. Most importantly, they reaffirm the need to connect, to fight, and truly live. They identify the need in us. I could watch them every night of my life, and it would not be enough.