Review: Sylvan Esso Thrills the Aragon Ballroom

A Sunday Halloween had two tracks set out before it. It could have brought an amplification of the Sunday condition--that cloud that accompanies the ending weekend might be especially pointed in the aftermath of whatever mistakes were made at Halloween parties on Friday and Saturday. Or it could be a remedy to that dread, theatrical and sugary as a balm. If you were at the Sylvan Esso show on Sunday, you likely felt the latter. As wer waited to enter, a line extended down Lawrence Avenue. Security personnel dressed as Naruto characters checked vaccination cards, while a crowd of mostly 20-somethings entered the historic and ornate venue in Uptown. A Ghostbuster and a green-faced man in a yellow zoot suit waited in front of a half-dozen Phoebe Bridgers skeletons. The Aragon is a venue that has “seen some ghosts,” if you believe opening artist Lido Pimienta. She seemed just as assured in her corporeal form. Her quilt-like dress twirled about the stage, giving her a lilting, graceful air as she swayed and stomped to the rhythm. Oh, that rhythm. Her music, influenced by the Latin American styles of cumbia and bullerengue, puts a heavy emphasis on percussion, both for the song’s backbone and its voice. More so than in rock or R&B, Pimienta’s drums talk back. They moved in conversation with her vocals, reacting and asserting themselves. When introducing her music, Pimienta spoke on the issues that inspire her work and do the real haunting of our world. She sang of water rights and abortion access, channeling her displeasure in such elegant and emotive ways that they seemed to elevate her stance beyond the grievance of a single artist, reaching toward an ethereal disapproval of our world leaders. She drew from 2020’s Miss Colombia, her third full-length album, and its predecessor, her breakthrough work, La Papessa. She played “Mango,” a moving, sensual song that she had been commissioned to write for the New York City Ballet, and closed the set leaving the audience with a feeling of peace, despite the world outside. Once Pimienta exited, layers of fog coated the stage and the sounds of Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House played, Laura Olsher’s audio concoction of whooshing wind, creaking floorboards and shrieking cats. Sylvan Esso - Photo by Shervin Lainez After the spooky mood had been effectively set, Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn glided onto the stage, draped in white ghost sheets. The duo opened with the glitchy “What If,” before tearing off their costumes and running headlong into the irresistible “Ferris Wheel” and an entrancing hour-and-a-half long set. The group’s power rests in the way it can grab one’s heart from different directions. The production of Sanborn--tall and lanky, swinging his shoulder-length hair over his massive rig--has a feel for the way electronic music builds emotion and worms its way into the listener. It is affecting in an ambiguous way, and becomes overwhelming before the swelling in one’s chest is even noticeable. At times, like during the monstrous second half of “Kick Jump Twist” and wurbles of “Numb,” the raver’s itch became unmistakable, begging for the beat to just go on and on and on. That itch was never scratched to satisfaction, because the space occupied by Meath commanded the listener to afford her much of the emotional bandwith at hand. Each member compliments and makes space for the other; but when Meath stepped into the churning and thumping production, her vocals took hold of the audience in an immediate way. Those moments were most prominent in the more subdued songs. “Frequency,” from the group’s latest album, Free Love, felt both light as air and heavy to bear. “Free” was tender and devastating, yet hopeful. Of course, it cannot go without saying that Sylvan Esso write a banger of a pop song. Its most famous numbers, “Coffee,” “Hey Mami” and “Radio” received roaring approval Sunday, and belong in the art pop pantheon. These songs show the duo’s synthesis of their styles, the crafting of electronic catharsis to meet stirring melody. The lights behind the group warped and flashed and went dark; “Die Young,” a poignant, unsettling and beautiful love song, came and went too quickly. The costumed masses sashayed and fist-pumped. By the third song of the encore, the group seemed as thankful for the audience as we were for them. And isn’t that what Halloween is all about?
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Sam Kayuha