This was an amazing concert! It was the best performance I've seen in a while, and maybe the best sounding show I've ever heard.
Sylvan Esso's music is emotionally diverse. It can be plaintive and longing, playful and epic, and head-banging-heart-breaking. I list pairs of emotions because there often doesn't seem to be a single word for what I'm feeling. I'm grooving and teary. My attention also flits about. At times I'm in love with Amelia's dancing and others I swoon for the synth + barry sax. I was on the edge of tears the whole evening and I couldn't put my finger on a simple emotion. Just, "moved!"
Hiro and I sat in the far back balcony (level 5, door 15). By the time I learned of the concert (thank you, Minh!) these nose-bleed seats were the only tickets I could get my hands on. The opening act, Hand Habit, played with only 1/4 of the seats full (club-style late-arriving audience) but by the end, it was full. Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn said, "It was thanks to all of you that we got to do last night here too," so apparently the show sold out twice.
They played pieces from the eponymous "Sylvan Esso" and "What Now" albums, as well as four tracks I'd never heard. I liked the new music and am excited to see what comes next. The set, as best I can remember it...
new piece ("frequency...")
new piece ("I can feel your...")
new piece ("Too many people...")
Play it Right
new piece? (vocal trio)
The core duo of Nick + Amelia Meath was supported by eight additional musicians. I've seen many of them in Sylvan Esso videos and recordings and it's clear they know repertoire well. They're all fond of one another and brought a great energy to the stage. The songs sounded like the originals but had room for new instrumentation and the performers were able stretch out a bit in places. Matt McCaughan's (Bon Iver) drums were extended by percussionist, Joe Westerlund, for example, leading a nice long intro to Rewind. And Meg Duffy (Hand Habit) took a nice long solo in the final piece, Amelia watching in appreciation.
Amelia and Nick are really charming. They seemed genuinely appreciative to be in Walt Disney Concert Hall, and perfectly comfortable with the music and with performing. Amelia's dancing was absolutely contagious, accentuated by a wonderful costume covered in white tassles that flowed with her movements. About 60% of the audience couldn't contain themselves and danced along. Nick talked at the end to thank everyone andand showed a sweet raport with the other musicians. He laughed and apologized when he mistakenly introduced one member as being from the wrong town, and skillfully used the "they" pronoun for another. The two spoke just enough to convey their humanity and not so much to distract from the music.
But the sound! For the last six months or so I've been lamenting that live shows never sound as good as the recordings. For once, that wasn't the case! This was one of the best sounding concerts of any genre I've ever heard. I should say immediately that I'm not particularly good at listening objectively when I'm head-over-heels in love with the music. It's likely that much of what I loved in the "sound" was actually just Sylvan Esso's skilled arrangement. The show has so many quiet moments, and so many moments of silence. Oh what silence! The speakers are silent between quiet passages; a perfect black background. Amelia would whisper and it sounded perfectly clear and beautiful. The encore ended with a gorgeous vocal trio that included long pauses that took full advantage of this. But it wasn't just the low end of the volume that sounded great. In the loud moments too (I measured 91~95 dbA where we were sitting) the mix didn't get muddy or distorted. It was electro-pop music with dynamic range!
We were pretty far off center and yet I didn't feel like the sound was coming from only the left channel. In the opening act, the keyboard and sax were clashing at times and I couldn't quite hear everything I wanted to, but that wasn't the case with Sylvan Esso. The low-end (kick, bass, synth) was really well integrated with the guitars and vocals -- something that never happens at clubs. And the mix felt like it was made in service of the performers. I would look at someone pushing buttons on stage and could find that sound in the mix. By comparison, at most shows I feel like the front-of-house engineer is trying too hard to match a CD-mix, and cramming each instrument into an equalized/compressed box that doesn't fit. I'm curious whether Nick and the other musicians "EQ at the source", changing what they're playing in response to front-of-house feedback. It has that kind of natural sound.
I had a few nits, of course. The amazing synth slide in PARADE didn't translate. The shaker could have been louder in Rewind. The audience loved the sax solo in H.S.K.T. but for me it could have started more patiently to get to that amazing end. But other moments were new and exciting. The wurlitzer sound on the Nord in the "Too many people..." new piece was delightful. The barry sax plus Nick's synth sounds was wonderful.
I felt so lucky to be there!
This show proved to me that Disney Hall sounds great. I know its famous for its acoustics but I've heard opera, classical, percussion, world music, and rock there and have never been blown away. Kodo, for example, played largely acoustically, and sitting near the back I couldn't hear the quietest parts. Sigur Ros + LA Phil was amazing but that lush sound but didn't feature the acoustic space like Sylvan Esso. I accosted the front-of-house engineer after the show. His name is Jay Demko and I'm now a huge fan. Jay Demko, whatever you do, keep mixing!
Thank you Sylvan Esso, Disney Hall, and all the crew involved in making this amazing concert happen. You've set the bar in my head for how beautiful music can sound.