Sylvan Esso: The Greatest Show on Dirt |  Thursday, May 19, Friday, May 20, & Saturday, May 21, 7 p.m., $50 | Historic Durham Athletic Park, Durham

Sylvan Esso’s recent achievements are the stuff of most bands’ fantasies: Strutting their red-carpet stuff as presenters and nominees at the 2022 Grammy Awards. Gracing both late-night and daytime TV with appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Taping a debut for long-running concert series Austin City Limits. Launching an independent label, Psychic Hotline, and an in-demand recording studio, Betty’s.

Yet bandmates Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn say their biggest dreams will come true this weekend during a three-night stand at downtown’s Historic Durham Athletic Park (DAP). Dubbed “The Greatest Show on Dirt,” the downtown extravaganza includes all-star support acts opening for Sylvan Esso, afterparties at three different venues, a Psychic Hotline pop-up shop at PS37, and exclusive baseball-themed merch from Oxford Pennant. It’s a decade in the making, Sanborn and Meath tell INDY Week over homemade cold brew on the back porch of Betty’s.

“We headlined Hopscotch [in 2016], but obviously that’s Raleigh,” Sanborn says. “Then we did our night at Shakori Hills [in 2017], but that’s way out there [in Pittsboro]. Then we did two nights at DPAC [in 2019, on the WITH Tour], which was great, but it didn’t feel like our usual thing. Everything was almost the thing. But this feels like a culmination—like a true hometown show. We’ve been trying to play at the ballpark for years.”

“Years,” Meath emphasizes. “I mean, James Brown played there! I would like to go on the record and say that I have always wanted to do our thing downtown. It seems like a really wonderful way to connect back to Durham.”

The ballpark was originally built in 1926 as the wooden El Toro Park, where the Negro League team the Durham Black Sox played. In the summer of 1939, though, the nearby Big Bull Tobacco Warehouse caught fire and spread to the field. DAP’s storied concrete-and-steel grandstand was constructed shortly thereafter and began playing host to the minor league Durham Bulls. In the late 1980s, Hollywood came calling with the cult classic Bull Durham starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, causing Durham to become an old-school destination for fans of Southern minor league baseball—and the team to outgrow the park.

In the 1995 season, the team moved across the railroad tracks to the Bulls Athletic Park. Since then, DAP has played host to the NC Central University Eagles baseball team and—anchored both by Old North Durham fixtures like King’s Sandwich Shop and the Blue Note Grill and by a growing bevy of Foster Street condos—remained a flagship Durham location. And Meath and Sanborn say that the location is everything for their triple-header.

“You don’t even really need to buy a ticket,” Meath says with a smile. “You can just hang out outside the fence.” (Is she OK with the INDY printing that? “Totally,” she says.)

“That was one of the big draws for us and what Amelia was pushing the whole time,” Sanborn adds. “When you do something in downtown Durham, it’s inherently just a block party. It’s not really about any one band or one person. It’s about a huge portion of the city coming together and hanging out.”

Originally planned as a one-night celebration of the band’s 2020 album, Free Love, the pandemic postponement eventually worked in Sylvan Esso’s favor when their field of dreams expanded to two nights. After both of those quickly sold out, they added a third.

“We wanted to do something big enough that there was nowhere else to be,” Sanborn says. “We were like, ‘How crazy can we make this? How can we make this something that has weight—that feels like a moment?’”

The moon shot extends to the weekend’s openers: half who are North Carolina icons and half who are performers representative of broader indie excellence.

“We made a list of all of the dream people that could open for us,” Meath says. “We love Little Brother, and they live in such infamy and lore here. We hung out with Phonte once and hit it off. Then we asked Yo La Tengo …”

“And they both said yes!” Sanborn exclaims, finishing Meath’s sentence. “That never happens. We were shocked. Those two bands each seemed to exemplify what we were going after.”

To round out each night’s triple bill, they then thought, “What about up-and-coming people who any of us would go see, wherever they’re playing, any night of the week?” Sanborn says. “So Indigo De Souza—another North Carolina artist who’s crushing it. And then our old friends Mr Twin Sister …” Returning the favor, Meath playfully cuts Sanborn off: “Who we adore.”

Opening night on Thursday, May 19, features Cameroonian American multi-instrumentalist Vagabon and pop avant-gardist Gus Dapperton (sadly, Asheville native Moses Sumney had to cancel). An impressive after-party lineup includes touring rockers Palehound and GRRL at the Pinhook on Friday, before Greensboro Afro-punks Black Haus precede a DJ set from Little Brother’s Rapper Big Pooh at Motorco on Saturday.

“You gotta have an after party,” Meath chuckles. “That was always part of the plan.”

“And part of the dream,” Sanborn adds. “There are going to be thousands of people downtown, so let’s put in a little extra effort and have the theme of the evening continue, even if it’s spread out.” He credits PS37 for jumping in to host and book three nights of local-centric after parties, with Raund Haus, Gemynii, and Queen Plz flexing their esteemed electronic chops.

“That’s the thing we noticed the first week we moved here a decade ago,” Sanborn says. “Everybody, when they hear an idea that they think is cool, they say, ‘Hey, how can I help?’ There’s no feeling of competitiveness or ego. Everybody just wants to be part of a cool happening. That is so rare and awesome.”

Will Sylvan Esso’s trifecta contribute to that Triangle tradition—and perhaps prove to younger artists the power of sticking to your sui generis guns? Meath and Sanborn both deflect the question, stressing the fact that Durham’s tight-knit musical tapestry predates them—and will certainly outlast them.

“I’m honored to contribute to that community, but I want to constantly acknowledge the community that’s been here the whole time,” Meath says. “Durham is an incredible place to make art, but Black and brown people put Durham on the map—and are still fighting to make Durham what it is.”

Sanborn picks up the thread: “What Little Brother built, what’s been going on forever at [North Carolina] Central [University], what J. Cole did with Dreamville, those are foundational aspects that allow people like me and Amelia to say, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ There’s such power in that. It allows everything to build in a way that feels permanent. No part of what’s going on here feels like a trend. It’s like a series of blooms in your garden. I feel truly lucky to be a part of it.”

That scrappy humility continues to endear Sylvan Esso to local adherents, even as the band’s big-tent ambitions attract the attention of millions of global fans. Those fans have traditionally skewed younger and more electropop-centric, but the DAP festival promises to expand that audience—possibly even to the slightly older group of baseball enthusiasts who held the inaugural Sandlot Revival featuring six teams from around the Southeast at Historic Durham Athletic Park in April.

So is baseball fandom acceptable for the eminently cool Meath and Sanborn, who filmed a video for their single “Numb” at DBAP in July 2021? “I was a big Little League guy,” Sanborn admits. “And I moved to Milwaukee after high school, so I loved the Brewers. It’s like a religion there.”

Ditto for Meath, who grew up in Boston listening to Red Sox games on the radio with her mom and says she’ll strut her stuff in three different baseball-themed outfits this weekend. “I’m also a very snack-oriented person, so the snacks are my favorite part. Even now, when we go to Bulls games, I’m mostly there for the snacks … and to yell and scream, which people here do not do. The first time we went to a Bulls game together with a group of people, everyone was like, ‘What are you doing?’” With a hearty laugh, Sanborn adds, “Everyone was having a great time, and then it would be like, ‘Fuck you #11!’ She was a menace.”

That intensity may not translate to Sylvan Esso’s recorded music, but anyone who’s seen Meath onstage knows she exudes a particularly powerful presence. That’s led to a lot of big opportunities coming their way, though Sanborn says that the pair turns down ones that don’t “feel like they’re part of the story we want to tell.”

Instead, both agree that their sonic narrative is getting “wilder and weirder,” and new single “Sunburn” affirms it. Out May 19—just in time for the big weekend—it’s an exuberant ode to that most tactile of summer sensations. Sylvan Esso fires on all creative cylinders on the track, with Meath’s sensual lyrics and Sanborn’s skittering beats combining into an eminently danceable jam.

“I feel most at home and the most creatively exploratory when it’s just Sandy and I,” Meath says, smiling as she uses her nickname for Sanborn and marveling at their “truly ecstatic” recent live performances. “There’s magic in being two people that play to so many—like a conductor of a sea of humans. It’s a dream.”

Sanborn agrees, identifying this moment—new material, the growth of Psychic Hotline and Betty’s, the three-night festival—as the natural confluence of Sylvan Esso’s internal vision and external stimulation. “We’re in this phase where the umbrella just keeps getting bigger,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more creatively fulfilled. It’s a natural thing to become more isolated the older you get—to have your circle get smaller. You have to actively work against that if you don’t want it to happen. But man, working against it feels really good.”

Meath agrees.

“Sylvan Esso is for everybody,” she says. “I want as many people to hear us as possible.”

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