By Tyler Bunzey
May 26, 2022
Over the course of three nights, the Historic Durham Athletic Park was host to a homecoming celebration for Sylvan Esso. Durham’s famed electro-pop duo, made up of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, easily could have filled the stadium on their own accord, but they took the opportunity to curate a celebration that lived up to the show’s advertisement as the “Greatest Show on Dirt.” Each night was packed with fans eager to hear the pair’s most popular hits like “Hey Mami,” “Die Young,” and “Radio.”
Many were also eager to hear from the diverse set of openers: rising star Asheville singer-songwriter Indigo De Souza, indie rockers Yo La Tengo, and North Carolina hip-hop royalty, Little Brother. The original home of the Durham Bulls– most famously associated with the Kevin Costner film Bull Durham— held its cinematic quality as concertgoers were dazzled by the weekend’s lineup.
As concertgoers entered the stadium, they were treated to food trucks lining the outfield, beverage stations, and of course, the large stage. To support the faithful crowds, the ballpark featured a rotating selection of beloved local food trucks like Pie Pushers and Chirba Chirba that added a culinary dimension to the festival. Fans were delighted by exclusive baseball-themed merch in the band’s Psychic Hotline pop-up shop.
The first night of the festival featured an opening performance by the New York-based indie pop-rock group Vagabon, led by Cameroonian-American, Laetitia Tamko. While fans trickled in on Thursday night, Tamko began her set with two high-energy rock songs, but in confluence with the setting sun dipping below the pines, the singer-songwriter crooned to the crowd in a handful of soft-pop songs before ending on a solo ballad. As the night fell, New York synth-pop artist Gus Dapperton took the stage, adding an easy-listening, beachy feeling to the warm evening air.
Sylvan Esso’s Thursday night set celebrated some of their classics with stirring performances of “Frequency,” “Free Love,” and the weekend’s only performance of “Uncatena.” When the duo slid into “Hey Mami” from their 2014 self-titled album, audiences outsung the backing track. The weather, matching the dramatic flair of Meath’s choreography, cut the night short with a severe storm. While some of the audience may have been disappointed at the night’s abrupt ending, it was clear that they were nonetheless thrilled with the performance.
Thursday’s lightning was supplanted by an unrelenting hot sun on an unseasonably warm Friday. Indigo De Souza, one of indie pop’s most exciting new voices, opened this second day of festivities. The Asheville artist played a more rock ’n’ roll sample of her catalog, eschewing hits like “17” and “Hold U” for records like “Darker Than Death” and “Bad Dream.” If De Souza embodied where indie music is going, her following act Yo La Tengo represented a more established voice in the genre. The indie rock band, formed in New Jersey in 1984, delighted older concertgoers (and a few hipper young heads), with a nostalgic set that culminated in an extended instrumental jam, which whipped the crowd into a sort of soft rock bacchanalia.
While Sylvan Esso’s first set may have featured some of the classics that developed their cult following, their second set featured a more stripped-down take on their catalog. They moved the crowd with performances like a pared-back version of their new single “Sunburn” and a raucously polyrhythmic rendition of “PARAD(w/m)E.”
The final evening was inaugurated by Mr Twin Sister, who delivered a vibrant set to prime audiences for the festival’s capstone performances. The pop band holds a special place for Esso, as the pair met at a Twin Sister concert back before the band added the “Mr” to the name. The band’s hallmark is their creativity, and their set featured bagpipe-sounding samples, four-on-the-floor house beats, and even a saxophone solo in their performance of “In the House of Yes.”
Mr Twin Sister was followed by a set from North Carolina hip-hop duo Little Brother, whose stage presence had the entire audience bobbing their heads. Rappers Big Pooh and Phonte brought audiences back to hip-hop’s roots with a little healthy shit-talking between songs: “You can TikTok your way out of some shit but if you’re wack, you’re wack. No hiding it.” The audience was even treated to a cameo from rapper Joe Scudda for “Lovin’ It,” a hit from their 2005 landmark album, The Minstrel Show. Indeed, the legendary emcees showed how old-school skills can still hype up a new-school crowd.
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Sylvan Esso built off Little Brother’s energy as they ran through their hits with a whimsical, sparkling energy. Concertgoers lit up the ballpark with cell phones during “Rooftop Dancing,” before the duo ignited the audience with a high-energy version of “Coffee.” The night concluded with a rowdy performance of “Radio,” in which the entire ballpark appeared to be jumping in unison, followed by a brief encore of “Ferris Wheel.”
@clture #SylvanEsso #Durham #DurhamNC #Radio #IndiePop #SynthPop #NCMusic ♬ original sound – CLTure
What made the three-night show series special wasn’t just the duo’s stirring performances of their records. Meath and Sanborn curated a series of seeming opposites– hip-hop and indie rock, emerging and established artists, high energy electronic records and rock ballads– that harmoniously fused in the festivities.
Overall, the weekend served as Sylvan Esso’s love letter to their city. Attendees clearly felt this care, and many were moved by music both familiar and novel. Meath, ever the succinct wordsmith, made sure that the audience understood the feeling behind the shows in her final performance on Saturday night before she exited the stage: “We love you hometown.” It was hard not to feel the love.
Check out the remaining 2022 tour dates for Sylvan Esso.