Sylvan Esso: WITH Tour

Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

DPAC, Durham

Damn, does Durham love some Sylvan Esso.

One of the reasons is simple: Here’s a band that got big in the Bull City—national TV, the Billboard charts, the Grammy nomination—and stayed instead of proceeding directly to New York or LA. In doing so, they’ve reinforced the idea that you can make moves in the Triangle as a home base, not just a launchpad. 

The other reason is even simpler: They’ve gotten really good.

Last night, Sylvan Esso played the second of two sold-out DPAC dates of their WITH tour, which adds eight musicians and a light show to the core duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, in the kind of auditoriums where you usually see hit musicals, not pop music.

Yeah, I said “pop”—while Sylvan Esso is still on an indie label as of its most recent album, 2017’s What Now, its current sound is closer to SZA and Sia than anything qualitatively indie. They didn’t pull it off by hooking up with Max Martin; they built a big, lush pop sound from the internal resources of Sanborn’s increasingly robust production and Meath’s fearsome vocal capacity.

As the opening set by Molly Sarlé, Meath’s bandmate in Mountain Man, gave way to intermission, the venue was topped to the balconies with fizzy young-to-middle-aged people toting DPAC’s funny sippy cups, doing their level best to turn it into the Haw River Ballroom.

It almost worked, though I’ll never be completely down with dance-y shows that require you to stand on a sloped floor, mashed between rows of seats. It’s just awkward. But Sylvan Esso was good enough to merit the back strain. They performed what seemed like most of their catalog, plus a couple of new songs, one of which was a bouncy little finger-snapper, the other more of a belting anthem. The stage was dramatically lit by a bank of large, frame-shaped lights that pulsed in time with different parts of the music.   

Meath was the centerpiece of the whole shebang, dancing and pouncing in a puffy pink body suit that suggested a buttercream rosette. Her performance was tireless and commanding, from the swoop of her vocal range and her split-second dynamic shifts to her balance of composure and enthusiasm. 

Meanwhile, hand to god, Sanborn showed up in flannel pajamas. He kept to the background, tending a warm, bass-rich electronic palette with help from Dev Gupta and trading a bass guitar back and forth with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, who also played keys and melted her vocal harmonies into those of Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, the third Mountain Man. (The resurgent trio has a big upcoming shenanigan at Duke Performances, too.) 

In addition to the strobing electronic percussion, there were two live drummers, Matt McCaughan and Joe Westerlund. There was also Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy on guitar (though you could barely hear them in the mix, outside of a couple of solos) and squiggly saxophonist Adam Schatz. So Sylvan Esso had a diverse sound palette at their command, one that could flex between tender ballads (during which some people, well into their sippy cups, kept screaming “We love you!” at the most inappropriate moments) and pop-house jams, all knitted together with group hand claps and dance moves.  

It was a far cry from their earlier live shows, when it was just Meath with a mic and Sanborn with one little suitcase of electronics, and it turns out that the band’s heralded minimalism might have been more about efficiency than necessity—they sound great with room to grown and build and breathe. Last night, it was like the scope of the sound caught up with the group’s stature, and hopefully, this rewarding full-band approach will last beyond this tour.