On the wings of its outstanding self-titled debut album, Durham dream-pop duo Sylvan Esso has enjoyed a swift and well-deserved rise to prominence that’s included ample NPR attention, an unforgettable performance at Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party, and, oh yeah, playing on the motherfucking Tonight Show. Friday’s packed Cactus Club show served as Milwaukee’s last hurrah from the sidelines as the year of Sylvan Esso crept closer to autumn. At least that was the plan.
The group’s still-swelling popularity required a change of venue. After the Cactus Club quickly sold out, it was promoted to the six-times-larger confines of the Pabst Theater, which also sold out in the waning days before show time. The interest in Sylvan Esso’s unofficial half-homecoming soirée was there, but could an act with just 10 songs in the entirety of its catalog hold the attention of the 1,339 people? Based on the response in the bursting theater, absolutely.
After Dosh played/programmed elaborate songs with electronic loops and actual drums to the under-enthused audience, Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn took the stage in the city where they first met, and quieted the cheers with the opening catcalls of “Hey Mami.” From there, the setlist was kept chronological for two more song: an audience clap-aided version of “Dreamy Bruises” and a rendition of “Could I Be” in which Sanborn did some live show liberties with the production, with great results. Between the second and third songs, Sanborn thanked the crowd and said, “It’s super good to be home, guys!” as he took in the scene.
From there, Sylvan Esso broke format a bit, opting to burn “Coffee,” its biggest single to date, in the middle of the show. The always-dancing audience didn’t seem to mind hearing the closer candidate early, and were eager to lend some “Get up, get down”s in the appropriate parts. Throughout the show, Meath was on the move with her endearingly corny dance moves, and Sanborn made playing a laptop and drum machines look about as exciting as that can look. All three levels of the constantly standing theater bounced and robot’ed along every step of the way.
The only respite in the dance-pop proceedings came when Sanborn needed to swap out laptops mid-set. Thankfully, Meath was able to fill the gap (and gain points from the already won-over audience) with cheesy jokes about whales and lobsters. After the exercise in anti-comedy, Sylvan Esso was back on track with “H.S.K.T.” and “Wolf” (rife with somehow off-key howls from the crowd). As the mere one-hour set drew to a close, Sanborn acknowledged the setlist shortage, but they finished strong with a hushed version of “Uncatena” and boisterous closer “Play It Right.” Strangely, the headliners almost immediately returned to the stage to play an indecipherable cover song and delicate acapella album ender “Come Down” to the stationary fans who remained.
Despite the somber conclusion and the all-around odd song order, Sylvan Esso thrived on the elevated stage. The show may have been short, but all 11 songs were outstanding, and became even better live. Hopefully as their catalog grows, and they cascade to even larger venues on the path to world domination, Sylvan Esso won’t be a stranger to Milwaukee. Something tells us they won’t be.