By Grant Golden
November 24, 2019
Sylvan Esso’s rise to prominence was almost immediate, from the opening flitters of their debut single “Hey Mami,” it was clear the duo had a vibrant and cohesive vision for the direction their music was taking. But the heights that this cohesion has propelled Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath to is something that little could have predicted. In 6 years, the duo has catapulted from a Hopscotch day show at The Pour House in Raleigh to back-to-back sold-out nights at Durham’s Performing Art Center to cap off a sold-out run of shows across the country’s major markets. While the brilliance of Sylvan Esso has always been strongly anchored in the minimalistic nature of their pop anthems, the ‘WITH’ tour displays just how expansive their sparse arrangements can grow.
Saturday night saw the duo blossom into a 10-piece live band featuring members of Bon Iver, Wye Oak, Megafaun, Landlady and more, most of whom call the Triangle home. The two-night run at DPAC was a monumental occasion that kicked off with a chilling performance from frequent collaborator Molly Sarlé. Sarlé opened her set with a cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” emphasizing the song’s inherent wistfulness by stretching out the vocal lines and soaking them with vibrato. Throughout her short set she peppered in standouts from her recent album Karaoke Angel like “Human,” “This Close” and “Suddenly.” While the crowd was still shuffling to their seats, Sarlé’s performance still compelled the crowd to an attentive silence, allowing her soaring vocals to wash over every corner of DPAC in a haunting, yet comforting manner. Closing out with the deeply personal “Almost Free,” Sarlé’s set felt like a cathartic release for the crowd, leaving attendees with a blank slate of emotions for the highly anticipated Sylvan Esso set to come.
From the moment that Nick and Amelia stepped on the stage, the duo weaved together one of the most dazzling live displays in recent memory. Throughout their 21-song set, the band followed a natural ebb and flow, weaving warm, rich synthesizers with sprawling sax lines, uplifting harmonies and booming bass drums, capping the whole thing off with Meath’s undeniable charisma. Opening with the dulcet tones of “Come Down,” the closing track of their 2014 self-titled album, the sound organically blossomed from a lone vocal sample and Amelia’s smooth vocals into the densely-packed display that drove the rest of their career-spanning set.
While peppering in a handful of buoyant and playful new tracks, Sylvan Esso breathed new life into their beloved hits. Tracks like “Dress” were built around live vocal sampling from the Mountain Man trio of Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Molly Sarlé, then erupt into a brilliantly arranged mixture of deep Moog bass lines and earworm hooks that fans all know and love. Sanborn stood in the back and served as the crew’s electronic-maestro, while he’s usually seen bobbing along in the back to his skittering mixes, he instead helmed an array of keys and synthesizers that members bounced between throughout the set. Keeping true to the Sylvan Esso tradition, Sanborn would occasionally twist on the knobs of his table full of modular to add a dash of static disruption, further fleshing out the texture of this impressive arrangement.
As the band churned through new takes on favorites like “Dreamy Bruises,” “Parade,” “Hey Mami,” and “The Glow,” it was remarkable to see how seamless the transition was between minimalistic electronic tunes to fully fleshed-out, 10-piece arrangements. But throughout it all lies the connection between Nick and Amelia, the empty space between Nick’s tight electronic soundscape and Amelia’s entrancing vocals are what allowed these songs to flesh out the way they did. Two rows of squares accented with LEDs backlit the band and served as the 11th band member of the night, providing the aura that washed over the dazzling performers and helped drive home the emotive arrangements. Throughout it all, you can’t help but draw the comparison between those squares and their similarity to the pads of an MPC, the sampling pad that helped to kickstart electronic music as a whole. The way the lighting served as the background for the band’s performance, beat pads have helped build the core of Sylvan Esso’s ethos as well. Seeing the band’s penultimate song of the night, “Play It Right, one of the simplistic pop anthems that brought the duo to prominence, performed with this 10-piece band, brought the whole scope of the band’s trajectory together.
The evening closed out with a hushed performance of “Sound,” the opening track from their second album. While this wide, robust set was filled with awe-inspiring arrangements, it was bookmarked with two of their most subdued, yet captivating songs. This deliberate move perfectly parallels the arch of Sylvan Esso and the shape of things to come. Throughout their short existence Sylvan Esso has erupted into international stardom, and while their shows have adopted all of the pomp that comes along with it, the band’s biggest strength still lies at their core, an undeniable bond between two brilliant musical minds. While the bright visuals and extravagant arrangements may amplify their talent, nothing can compare to their ability to pull back the curtains, turn down the lights, and let the sounds speak for themselves.