A sublime headline set led by the most eccentrically charismatic frontman in indie
It’s now been nine years since Future Islands’ overnight transition from cult curio to global meme-bait following their astonishing performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on Letterman, which is also the same amount of time they were a band before that late-night TV quantum leap in 2014. But if they’ve somewhat receded to more manageable levels of exposure in the years since that now-mid-career moment in the viral glare, tonight’s main-stage headline slot at End Of The Road is a perfect reminder of a band who still know exactly how to capture the imagination of a passer-by audience, be it one ambling through YouTube or past a festival stage.
The key to that lies in the irresistible magnetism of Samuel T Herring, who surely must be the most captivating frontman currently operating. It helps, of course, that he and his band are in possession of the sort of precision-engineered instant-hit melodies that only require one play to worm inside your ears, but in this context, that parade of supertunes tonight is really just a springboard for Herring’s performance: vocally, he channels equal parts Southern evangelical preacher, matinee-idol crooner and throat-singing death metaller, with his movements hitting somewhere between mystery loose-limbed sea creature, Cossack squat-dancer and super-lean featherweight prize fighter, bobbing and weaving and yearning and squirming around the stage and looking for all the world like he’s about to take off or pull his own heart out of his chest.
The combination is momentarily funny – a sort of bizarro absurdity at which you can’t help but laugh, almost out of incredulity – but very quickly it’s clear that Herring is trading less in spectacle here and more in just a sort of radical authenticity, making the noises and movements we’d all want to do were we not so bashful or inhibited or boringly socialised: on the times when his croon becomes growl, it feels like a pot of feelings bubbling over uncontrollably, or like some sort of emotional puke, a spontaneous purging that’s simultaneously repulsive and deeply cleansing.
There’s also something animalistically sensual about it all too, Herring occupying a space halfway between Tarzan and Heathcliff with his brooding, near-feral ritualistic moves, and all this untrammelled ardency is only amplified by the rest of the band behind Herring playing like robots as a foil to all the hyperemotionality.
Oh, and the tunes: ‘Seasons’ goes off, of course, reaching far back up the site’s grassy bank to the food trucks, ‘Tin Man’ turns the hundred or so Future Islands ultras down the front in to just limbs, and closing ballad ‘Little Dreamer’ is the perfect choice to send the Saturday night crowd out to the various small-hours discos and secret sets. But really, the set belongs to Herring, who takes his band’s songs into the stratosphere with his delivery: without him, Future Islands are simply excellent indie pop. With him, there’s something undeniable, fascinating, almost invincible – a must-see that goes way beyond any recording of theirs.
At one point tonight, Herring tells us that “I’m trying to get you motherfuckers to cry up here”. It comes over as a kind gesture, the most emotional man in the world inviting us to feel along with him. We’ll never match his levels of no-filter, of course – he’s the paragon here. But therein lies Herring’s appeal: there’s a sense that if we collectively channel just 1% of his outpouring over the set’s 90 minutes, the world will be a slightly warmer, kinder place.