Sylvan Esso Hosts Karaoke
The Pinhook, Durham
Friday, Feb. 13, 2015

Even my grandma knows about Sylvan Esso.

Last year, the innocuous electropop of Durham duo Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn made Sylvan Esso new indie darlings. They sold out shows on a few continents and made late-night TV appearances; they’re billed rather high on the upcoming Coachella lineup, and Meath recently sat in with My Morning Jacket.

Lots of people like them, but I really don’t. Around here, though, when I express those feelings, I’ve learned to expect a fiercely loyal rebuttal from a friend who knows them. Their kindness and popularity seem to have made them off-limits for substantive critique; to wit, they are part of the kinda-family-run Trekky Records clique, known for a non-abrasive rock lineup and infinitely good vibes. I’ve tried arguing about Meath’s decent vocals and lyrics and Sanborn’s underwhelming production, to be analytical of the music they make in a genre which they seem to have entered overnight, only to be dubbed a hater.

So it seemed a perfect, benevolent fit to catch Sylvan Esso, at last, at a karaoke set they hosted at The Pinhook. For a suggested donation, anyone could sing a song of their choice; all the proceeds were to be donated to the LGBTQ Center of Durham. The night normally brings maybe a few dozen regulars to the bar, but the duo’s name filled the venue to capacity. The entertainment started slowly, with the crowd sticking to standards like “Walk the Line” and a duet of “Wagon Wheel.” It was all very sincere.

But the crowd was prepared to show out, with coordinated outfits and choreographed routines. Punctuated with spastic and rather unrefined movements, Meath’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make me Feel” finally hyped the room. Her voice strained; at times, I wasn’t sure if she was offering a cheesy karaoke rendition or actually singing a song that she really liked. Sanborn emceed the night, calling out the raffled numbers of the next participants and announcing breaks, which seemed to be frequent for a night of karaoke. The two later joined for a bit of The Lion King.

Better than cuteness, though, were the surprising vocal capabilities of the attendees. A notable version of John Legend’s “All of Me,” for instance, gave couples at the Valentine’s weekend show an opportunity to display a little extra (and always unnecessary) PDA. The Disney tunes were plentiful, of course, the crowd singing along to Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” in unison. Seemingly eager for a party, they were also moved by Sia’s “Chandelier,” the pop hit that resonates because its wailing chorus vows to live life wildly. Trekky founders Will Hackney and Martin Anderson offered an Impostafarian version of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” with rambling lyrics—yes, even though it was karaoke, and the words appeared on the screen. Hackney’s always impressively energetic dance stirred the crowd again.

By that point, the performers had approached diva status, commanding lights, mic level adjustments and more. But The Pinhook was packed for a good cause, and it was hard not to appreciate Sylvan Esso’s supportive and successful work. Maybe I’m just idealistic: In a world of Pomplamooses and Karmins, I think Meath and Sanborn—seasoned musicians in several other styles—have the abilities and smarts to challenge their audience, to make interesting and intricate and urgent electropop.

They’re not there yet, but, hey, at least they throw a decent karaoke party.