It’s hard to imagine many bands that are more just plain fun than Sylvan Esso. And last weekend during two very sold-out shows at Union Transfer, they both had fun performing and shared their magical sense of passion and humor with an adoring crowd of fans. I had been waiting to see the band again for almost two years, since first encountering them in Wisconsin at Justin Vernon’s inaugural Eaux Claires festival — and getting to see their explosive presence touring behind the just-released What Now did not, of course, disappoint.
As the creaky, echoing pitches that introduce What Now‘s opening cut “Sound” weaved their way through a pitch black Union Transfer, the skeletal ribs of the band’s lighting rigs began to glow in response to the wavelengths, rising and falling in time with Nick Sanborn’s precise manipulations of synthesizers and modulators. The audience had waited long enough after seemingly endless tech delays had widened the gap after opener Lucy Dacus, and went wild as the partners on stage began to work their magic.
It would have been easy for a lesser band than Sylvan Esso to get lost in the mudslide of mostly-passable snythwave that came on over the course of the several years around the duo’s release of their self-titled debut in 2014, but the pair’s curiously hyper-intelligent ability to seamlessly meld Sanborn’s intense production abilities with Amelia Meath’s vibrant and melodious words led to not only perfect radio singles, but staying power and a lasting appeal. While the sophomore album slump has struck down many promising bands, Sylvan Esso’s release of What Now shirks both cliches of the genre and pitfalls of predictability in order to lay out even more dynamic geometry for which the pair to play within.
New songs were met with just as much enthusiasim from the crowd as old favorites, even though What Now was less than a month old. It’s with good reason — the band knows what they’re doing, and have got the formula of what works for them dialed in just exactly right. Meath’s vibrant stage presence and lilting, haunting vocals fit in perfect sync with the larger-than-life tones produced by the machinations of Sanborn’s hands and decks.
Front-loading the setlist with most of the new record left the back nine mostly free and clear for a nonstop, drag-out hitfest. When Sylvan Esso chains “Hey Mami” into “H.S.K.T” into new banger “Radio” to end the set, you shut the fuck up and dance. As I worked my way around the outer rim of a Union Transfer more packed than I’ve ever seen it looking for a good angle on a photograph, fans were doing just that. The band has a way with both words and sounds that’s absolutely second to none. “What Now” is a natural extension of the band’s vibrant philosophy to make excellent music, but just have fun doing that.
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