From sharing bills at small venues, to internet friends, to official collaborators united in the city of Durham, North Carolina, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn made impressive progress together in 2014. After Sylvan Esso’s debut self-titled album dropped in early May, YouTube videos, SoundCloud and Spotify links started to creep across the internet and shared on almost every social media platform—a musical epidemic so contagious your mother probably caught it. Naturally, their performance at the Neighborhood Theatre last Friday night sold out over a month in advance.
The pairing of Meath’s seasoned, warm-bodied folky vocals with Sanborn’s visions of electronic fields of sound and space beneath them has created an album of hits that are melodically intelligent as well as entertaining, even in live performance. Some initial concerns before seeing the show were if Meath’s vocals would be strained by attempts to be heard over the sold out crowds they were receiving each night, or if the stage show would be lacking due to the fact that there are just two people and no “real” instruments. Luckily none of this was an issue for the Durham duo with a grizzly-looking Sanborn vibing over his table like a mad scientist and the uniquely beautiful Meath literally owning “the eyes as she flies right through the sound moving her body all around” the stage.
Reading stories and watching interviews of the two discussing their musical agreeableness doesn’t even touch their obvious intrinsic chemistry during live performance. Midway through their set as they were about to start “Hey Mami,” arguably the most popular song on the album, something awkward happened on stage. Meath smiled as if some inside joke had just played itself out between them. She walked over to Sanborn as he apologized and admitted to messing up with a huge grin on his face. The two stood together jesting a little bit, almost purposefully letting the tension build over the crowd so hyped up for that one song before finally restarting it with a chip of laughter.
Then there was dancing. All night long, dancing. It is difficult to describe exactly what was happening other than that people were just feeling it. The duo was getting down so hard to their own beats on stage, the bass was so deep and pulsating, and the vocals so crisp and smooth, it was honestly crazy. Meath was swaying slowly, sensually, dramatically, almost like a side-winding snake before us, moving her arms all around like noodles in space. Sanborn was in electroland, keeping his hands on the knobs, bobbing his head, and grooving his booty the best he could without missing a beat. In an interview with B-Sides TV, Meath says “I knew that Nick and I would be good at collaborating together because we dance in the same way.” Yeah.
Sylvan Esso played their eponymous album in its entirety. All your favorites from the ultra-hype “H.S.K.T.,” “Hey Mami” and “Dreamy Bruises,” the mellower “Uncatena” and “Wolf,” to the Mountain Man/Made of Oak collaborations “Play It Right” and “Come Down.” Meath admitted toward the end of the performance that they regrettably don’t have very many songs but are working on new ones just before then performing a new song as the encore.
Jim Morrison called it in 1969 when he predicted that blues and country (which he saw as the two indigenous genres of our nation), from which rock music evolved, would eventually give birth to a new breed of music utilizing machines and tapes. As we’ve seen electronic music evolve over the years—from literally recording a riff over and over to create sample tapes, to pairing it with analog instruments in a band, to seeing a lone performer on stage with a couple laptops and knobs without a single microphone—it has come with its downfalls, but also its merits, Sylvan Esso being one of them.
For fun: after you’ve listened to Sylvan Esso’s collaborative version of “Play It Right,” the song that began their advantageous musical journey together, go listen to the three women of Mountain Man (Meath’s first band) perform the original version of “Play It Right” a cappella and hear the beats in the silence between their voices.
Sylvan Esso will be back in North Carolina on April 2 at The Orange Peel in Asheville and April 3 at Carrboro Town Commons. Get your tickets before those shows sell out too.
Listen to “Play It Right” by Sylvan Esso