Sylvan Esso delivered on their promise to bring atmospheric and empowering dance pop to the Majestic last Thursday night. Despite having a lack of production material out (only one full length LP), the duo from Durham, North Carolina, performed a sharp and simultaneously playful performance.
The electronic-pop band was born out of a chance encounter at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee, where they shared a bill as parts of their previous musical ventures. Amelia Meath, front woman and vocalist, was part of a three-piece, female folk band named Mountain Man from Bennington, Vermont. Meath and mate Nick Sanborn, producer, were part of a psychedelic folk band from Durham, but Sanborn originally hails from Madison, Wisconsin. His parents still live in Madison and attended the Majestic show.
The night began with Minneapolis-based multi-instrumental artist, Dosh, who worked his way into the Minneapolis music scene in the early 2000s by playing with several local artists including Andrew Bird. His sound was eclectic in a way that created fuzzy musical dissonance. His set featured constant atmospheric background sounds and each melody came in overindulgent 10-minute blocks. Triangles, chimes and syncopating percussion were key elements to his set, which began to feel like a burdening heap of sound, with no distinct shape.
However, when Sylvan Esso took the stage, they turned up the intensity and shifted the mood to be one less ominous and more playful. The set began with the first track on the album, “Hey Mami.” Towards the end, there is a triumphant bass drop that comes as a liberating interjection to the existing beat. When Sanborn dropped the heightened, deeper bass Thursday night it sent a surge of energy through the sold-out Majestic. The expectant crowd pulsed with a momentary explosion of dance and then returned to their rhythmic swaying.
The production on their first and only self-titled album, Sylvan Esso, is sharp, clean and highlights Meath’s vocal integrity; she scales a broad range of pitch with an ease that is beautiful to listen to and would be difficult to translate to a live performance, for most musicians. Miraculously, Meath hit the same crisp and poignant notes on stage as she did on the album. Her highly-articulated vocals echoed into the crowd with a smooth, yet sharp intensity like the polished edge of a freshly cut diamond.
The stage had a no frills setup with only a synthesizer, a laptop and several standup lights, but the two compensated with their powerful performing style. They fed off each other’s energy and interacted with facial expressions and banter several times throughout the set.
Their dance styles also contrasted in a complimentary way. Meath moved her body in a manner that seemed to personify the rhythm of the music; she swayed and rocked back and forth with one fluid motion that invited the crowd to follow suit. It was infectious witnessing this expression of the music. Her moves weren’t highly rehearsed or intricate, she looked more like how one would dance in the privacy of their own home, letting the music take complete control and letting go of all inhibitions.
It was easy to lose yourself in the intense swaying of Meath’s swaying and bobbing, but Sanborn was also incredible to watch. Where Meath was free-flowing and whimsical, Sanborn moved in bursts of distorted twists and tangles of his arms. When the bass dropped it looked like his body was overcome with a sudden wave of intense emotion and his whole body came down on the synthesizer as he pinched and twisted different synths and beats. He became a character beyond the seemingly goofy and sweet-natured man who greeted his “shy, Midwestern parents,” who were sitting high above in the Majestic balcony, between songs.
Their set ended with “Play it Right,” the sample track that brought the two together when Meath asked Sanborn to remix it. It was a fast-paced, sing-along tune. For their encore, they closed out the night at around 12 p.m. with “Come Down,” a ballad that features Meath’s slow, melancholy vocals dribbling softly over Sanborn’s quiet atmospheric sounds and occasional beats. It was a calm and beautiful close to high-intensity, passion-filled night of sharp vocals and powerful bass drops.