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We spent an hour full of heart and healing with unlikely rock stars Future Islands at ACL

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman
Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 2, 2021.

For Baltimore’s Future Islands, an underdog  band that’s found fame despite sticking to its inward-looking, understated synth pop, the long road to a big Austin City Limits Music Festival gig reached a joyful arrival on Saturday.

The band scored an usual hit back in 2014 when singer Sam Herring went viral for his elastic, melodramatic “Letterman” performance of “Seasons,” right before heading here for South by Southwest. Herring has a talent for daily affirmations and songs about the self, but he’s never seemed interested in bottling that messaging via bigger, more pragmatic-to-his-fortunes arena anthems.

Last year’s “As Long As You Are” was another double-down — a slow-roll record that Pitchfork called full of “languorous, heart-on-the-sleeve synth-pop that hits all its marks but smacks of diminishing returns.”

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Yet here at the Honda Stage, the unlikely rock stars returned value — and then some—doing it their way: ballads about the human condition, distinct baritone vocals, and melancholy hooks. Who doesn’t benefit from therapy?

Future Islands have the experience to do it right: They’ve been a festival mainstay since 2012, way back when blog endorsements directly mapped with indie stardom and instant relevance. Say they never make another great album—the Baltimore trio has a discography to lean on.

“I grew up as a kid watching ‘Austin City Limits,’” Herring told Zilker onlookers. “Let’s have some fun y’all.”

With a straightforward, generally unremarkable-on-paper backing lineup of drums, keys and bass, Future Islands win on guttural rhymes from the heart. And that stage presence — Herring writhes up there like a melting-down cubicle worker who doesn’t take well to news that he was just let go. 

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He sweats through his jeans and short-sleeve, button-down black shirt. He’s burning it down and moving on, introducing songs onstage with urgent, oddly specific messaging: “This is a song about putting everything you own in the car and getting the hell outta town.”

Before “Plastic Beach,” a relatable call to arms and admission from Herrington: “I spent way too much time in the mirror, thinking.” It’s a song about self-acceptance.

His writing offers fleeting romance and pre-song pep talks—like before “Seasons,” a song introduced as about “that person you’ve been waiting (on).” He’s pretty transparent about what he’s going for. The song “Ancient Water” was introduced as about a “return to nature… playing out in the creek.”

Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 2, 2021.

The 10-year-old “Balance” remains a trusting arm on the shoulder, a reminder that you’re enough: “You can clean around the wound, but if you want it to heal: It just takes time.”

If that line lands for you, you’ve got a good band to watch next weekend.

Future Islands wrapped its set with “Tin Man,” a song about, as Herring put it, “a man looking for his heart.”

In his songwriting, he’s found  it.