Get Up, Get Down: Sylvan Esso Rocks the Greek on July 12th.
Excitement was palpable in the early evening hours on July 12th at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Lines stretched out the entrances and onto Gayley Road as fans lined up in anticipation of North Carolina-based electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, comprised of indie folk rockers Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, and opener Kamasi Washington, a saxophonist and bandleader for a six-piece jazz outfit.
Formed in 2013, Meath and Sanborn began collaborating together as Sylvan Esso after their own individual careers as indie musicians in Mountain Man and Megafaun, respectively. They quickly rose to fame with their single hit “Hey Mami,” which was named Paste Magazine’s number one song of 2014. The rest, as they say, is history: that year they released their eponymous debut album and followed up last April with their second full-length, What Now, which catapulted the duo (who also married in 2016) into the touring and festival circuit the past few years and even garnered them a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album in 2017.
As crowds began to buy their beers and get settled into the amphitheater-like seating at the Greek, Kamasi Washington and his band -- comprised of a bassist, keyboardist, trombone player, vocalist, and two percussionists playing side-by-side on separate drum kits -- set the mood with their dynamic energy and incredible musicianship. They primarily played songs off of Washington’s latest release, Heaven and Earth, which was released just three weeks before this show.
Washington, who has played alongside musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Chaka Khan, led his band with confidence and stealth-like grace. The 45-minute set ended with “Fists of Fury,” the single off of his latest album, a raucous, 10-minute-long epic which included individual solos from each band member and a drum battle between his two percussionists. Washington, an accomplished and award-winning musician in his own right, gave much of the spotlight to his bandmates which was refreshing and interesting to witness firsthand.
After a brief intermission and set change, Sylvan Esso took the stage once the sun completely set. The duo were shrouded entirely in smoke and lit only by a claw-like light contraption behind their minimalist set-up, which basically comprised of a laptop, mixer, and two microphones. They began with “Sound,” the first track off their 2017 release, and as if almost on cue, audience members began singing the lyrics back to Meath, word for word.
The band then moved into a more up-tempo rhythm with “Could I Be” and “Signal,” the latter of which the audience went wild for. Sanborn, who theatrically and emphatically pressed buttons and turned knobs on his Ableton MIDI controller, jumped up and down to the clicks and chimes of “Signal” alongside Meath, who was clad in a long-sleeved, all-black, fringe leather jumpsuit and black platform boots. That being said, Sylvan Esso’s stage presence is somewhat lacking and two-dimensional. Meath is not the best performer (she repeated the same dance move for the entirety of their set) and Sanborn is almost too exaggerated in his movements for them to feel authentic.
The audience, however, seemed not to mind: they danced, sang, and bopped along to every song almost robotically on cue. The duo peppered in their hit singles “Kick Jump Twist” and “Coffee” into a set that was paced well. Meath even went into a minutes-long tangent about the Berkeley Bowl and its incredibly vast selection of mushrooms at one point, as Sanborn chimed in with his admiration for the East Bay’s music venues.
After about an hour-long set, Sylvan Esso left the stage momentarily, only to return for a two-song encore which ended with “Play it Right,” the band’s very first single. The crowd was elated, and so was the duo, who thanked the audience repeatedly for their love and support throughout the performance.
All in all, Sylvan Esso put on a show that felt satisfying, but only in the sense that it sounded just like their recordings. I felt like I got what I was promised, but they didn’t exceed my expectations and provide the audience with an all-around, exceptional stage performance. Granted, following up to Kamasi Washington and his crew was a tough act to follow: they truly set the tone for the rest of the evening. Next time, I’d like to see Sylvan Esso opening the night for Kamasi Washington and his band of musicians.
Avi aka Red Pepper has been volunteering at KALX since 2017. When she's not skimming through records at the station, she can be found ordering something complicated at one of the East Bay's many tiki bars.