The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 6, 2014

Jeremiah Tucker: Letterman performance gives deserved boost to Future Islands

JOPLIN, Mo. — It's hard to believe an appearance on a late-night talk show can still make a band's career. It's such a common occurrence and the cultural currency of the late-night format has dropped so much in recent years that, short of literally setting the stage ablaze or stabbing the host, the most a band could hope for is a couple of polite blog notices.

But after performing on David Letterman March 3, Future Islands overnight went from a hardworking, critically respected but relatively unknown synthpop band from Baltimore already four albums into its career to the darlings of the South by Southwest festival and one of the most popular indie acts of 2014 -- relatively unusual for a middle-aged band.

While it's always difficult to tell whether Letterman's enthusiasm is sincere or ironic or some mixture of the two, he seemed genuinely blown away by the band, exclaiming at the end of Future Islands' performance, "Buddy, c'mon! I'll take all of that you got! That was wonderful!"

And he was right. I'd never been a superfan of the band. I'd only listened to Future Island's 2011 album "On the Water," but after watching the performance the next morning on YouTube, I immediately decided to buy a ticket to see the band live.  

The reason is frontman Sam Herring is a mesmerizing performer. With a receding hairline and build like a bricklayer, he's initially remarkable only for his averageness. Then he begins to dance and emote, getting down low to the ground and energetically sliding back and forth like a stationary speed skater or a guy who only knows one dance move but is completely confident that it's at least a killer move.

I found the performance kind of like watching your friend's blue-collar dad show up to perform at your high school prom, dressed in dress slacks and a tucked-in black T-shirt -- naturally, because this is a dress-up event.

And at first, you're really worried of the potential for embarrassment, but then he proceeds to completely own the place -- just a total triumph of a sincere middle-aged guy obliterating teenage cynicism.

The next night, Letterman exclaimed twice in the monologue "let's dance" and cut to a clip of Herring's moves.

When I saw Future Islands live last week, I was worried that in a club setting, Herring wouldn't be as intense. But if anything, he was more so. The man works hard to build a connection to the crowd, and the band's music -- personal and sensuous in the way that only minimal synthpop can be -- suits him.

He moves and sings as if he's channeling and amplifying the song's emotional message. He pounds his chest, gestures to the heavens like a scenery-chewing actor in an amateur Shakespeare production and occasionally busts some moves that wouldn't be out of place in the next "Magic Mike" movie. And somehow, he never let this cross the line into camp or kitsch.

The rest of the band -- a synth player, guitarist and drummer -- barely move so as not to distract from Herring, whose dreamy baritone occasionally distorts into a croak or mutates into a hardcore devil voice, which oddly works with the romantic music.

The moment the band is enjoying is helped by the fact it just released its strongest album, "Singles," the lead track of which, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" the band performed on Letterman. Stylistically, it's not that different from Future Island's previous releases, but it's surer-footed, zeroing in and refining the band's strengths. The middle third -- "Doves," "Back in the Tall Grass" and "Song for Our Grandfathers" -- is particularly strong.

Still, as fine as the album is, I doubt the show I caught last Thursday would've sold out had it not been for that Letterman performance, which just goes to show that even in a down economy, sweat equity matters.

Jeremiah Tucker is a music columnist for the Globe. Contact him at jeremiah

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