The bass jumped as he jumped, and as his voice jumped from tenor to bass seamlessly. Future Islands performed a set that was full Wednesday night at The Empty Bottle. And although it was a late “school” night, the crowd jived along with the beautiful, longing vocals of Frontman Samuel Herring, the precise bass line of William Cashion and the synthetic highs sung by Gerrit Welmers.
The Empty Bottle is one of my personal favorite venues. It’s intimate, it’s not usually over-packed and it’s approachable. But this venue in particular did not offer the perk of viewing for a performance that takes advantage of movement and the intimacy of its crowd. Herring’s dance moves were something only my iPhone’s lens could show me over the heads of those up closer. But, the raspy sound of Herring’s voice, coupled with a bass line that doesn’t miss a beat and a guitar riff that depicts an endless course for the band’s work, rendered viewing unnecessary.
Herring had a sense of humor to share with Future Islands’ L-shaped audience. When asked what a band or artist feels is most unique to Chicago, the answer is typically a sense of community. And that’s what Future Islands expertly displays on stage. Thus, its choice for a small venue without levels – though visually obstructive – is a smart one. I would have expected a band like this to choose Lincoln Hall for its acoustics or even Schubas for its width. But horizontal movement being part of Herring’s sense of humor, and the band’s uniqueness, paired well with a venue like this. And sound raked over us.
We were equals.
The band has commented on physical and figurative distance in the age of modern technology. And they fight any impersonal qualities the moment they hit the stage. The sense of urgency emitted through the bass lines of Future Islands keeps energy high throughout the crowd; its purpose is to release anxiety from a world in which technology prevails. This is a world in which the distance between one red line rider and the next have an invisible concrete wall, forbidding interactions.
Herring’s own musical interactions with Cashion and Welmers exhibits the communication that’s lost on two adjacent commuters. The band’s purpose is clear in the simple infrastructure of the Empty Bottle and the lack of need for dancing lights and visuals. This was not the first time Future Islands chose to perform at the venue, announcing at the beginning of its set of its visit many years ago. Herring, Cashion and Welmers want to be near their audience, and to form a connection that’s lost when away from their own loved ones, always on the road.
Hearing Future Islands perform “Time On Her Side” from its latest album, The Far Field (2017), invokes the feeling of miscommunication conquered. Each verse rises to a new level on the bass, and its sound reverberates through the bones of the crowd, standing together. The song vies to overcome the ticking of the clock, and lyrics like “But something broke in me / Watching on this winter’s eve / Like a voice, that I’d been trying to hide / Pulled me close” convey age and regret of inaction.
When Herring sings a song like “A Dream of You & Me” or “Seasons (Waiting on You),” two tracks from Singles (2014) the bouncing up and down in vocal range displays a heart-wrenching, visceral quality. As I stood in back of the crowd, most spectators taller than me, I closed my eyes and let the music seep through my mind as I took myself back to the time I first began listening to Future Islands. I didn’t know what my heart ached for at the time, and oftentimes still don’t. But coupled with the aforementioned sense of urgency, Herring’s baritone vocals create a yearning for something.