By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn
Sylvan Esso’s Tuesday night show was a marriage of the synthetic and the organic, a sonic reminder that opposites do indeed attract. Nick Sanborn’s beats are intriguing and multi-textural, Amelia Meath’s voice satisfying and just enough unique. But his DJ work and her voice alone don’t sell out San Francisco’s historic Fillmore two nights in a row. The synergy between the two sell out The Fillmore two nights in a row.
Tuesday was an evening of contrast and anticipation: the bass was deep and hard-hitting but purposeful, her voice childlike in the face of Sanborn’s violent hooks. Both can stand alone—and both do: his bass powers Megafaun while her vocals drive Mountain Man—but paired together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. His beats pull the hotel room shades down low; her voice cracks the window, letting just enough daylight in.
The duo from Durham enhances the contrast with the art of anticipation, stacking blocks precariously high, drawing the audience in with a “watch this” wink then, when the tower is wavering, stacking one more and kicking out the foundation. Buildups are impossibly long; by the time the beat finally drops, the crowd is personally invested. As the bass dropped, we dropped.
The show was spirited, in the way a car wreck is jarring. Framed by a pulsing backdrop of glowing angles—an appropriate arrangement of “greater-than” signs—Meath punched through the heavy fog sitting over the stage in a torn black tank top, perfectly incongruous with her sprightly vocals. At her best, her voice approaches Norah Jones- a sound nearly innocent.
Five feet to her left, Sanborn bobbed frenetically over a laptop and soundboard, doing actual onstage DJ work… or at the very least a convincing acting job. A true multimedia experience, lights flashed in synchrony with his deepest hits, highlighting that which needed no highlighting.
“Coffee” and “Hey Mami” were played with the passion of a band not yet tired of dancing with the one that brought them, while new material demonstrated their limitless appetite for creative juxtaposition. The latter featured a track in which a xylophone and rainforest sound effect broke into the evening’s deepest bass line, the contrast so glaring it teetered on comical.
The group was miles away from its hometown of Durham, NC, a point illustrated by the tepid response to their North Carolina shout-out, as well as the strong impression made by San Francisco grocery stores (“Every time I walk into Bi-Rite, I stand in front of the carrots and weep”). Durham is a city better known for a certain university and minor league baseball team than its music scene. Bands like Sylvan Esso and Hiss Golden Messenger are starting to change that.
Throughout the duo’s 90-minute performance, there was sweat and there were heart-rattling bass lines and eyes-closed dancing, but there was also a sense that some was left on the table, understandable for the first show of a two-night run. The encore—a vocally driven “Come Down” that was refreshing and genuine, if a bit anticlimactic—seemed to revel in this fact, leaving the audience smiling and rubbing the smarting handprint of previous bass hooks.
And with an unassuming wave goodbye, Sanborn and Meath quietly walked off stage, the pair somehow larger than the two silhouettes disappearing into the fog.