Sylvan Esso at The Mothlight

Sylvan Esso performing at The Mothlight. Photo by Monica Koerschner, via Twitter
Sylvan Esso performing at The Mothlight. Photo by Monica Koerschner, via Twitter

Durham-based electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, the project of Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sanborn, launched their tour with a pair of sold-out shows at The Mothlight. The first, last night, was not without its glitches (the computer crashed, ironically, during the song “Play it Right”), but it showcased Meath and Sanborn’s considerable chemistry, energy and obvious love of making music.

The set launched with “Hey Mami,” the playful lead track to Sylvan Esso’s new, self-titled album. Meath’s voice is a remarkable soaring thing that, on the record, is supple and fluid. On stage, she matched her own vocal loops with choppier choruses — that choppiness perhaps because she was dancing, or signing over dance beats, or because the audience threw her off with a zealous singalong.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the record — a seamless 10-song collection whose beats take backseat to Meath’s effortless vocals. There’s a coolness that stops just shy of detachment, a pop-savvy well-paired with a trip-hop aesthetic. On stage, the songs were re-envisioned with Sanborn’s electronics up front. The loungey attitude was replaced with kinetic dance rhythms and a quartet of light features that plunged each track into a roughed-up dance-club strobe.

Not that that’s a bad thing. The “oh-ee-oh-ee-oh” refrain of “Dreamy Bruises” still seemed to call out like an echo from a well. The duo’s single, “Coffee,” had the audience singing the “My baby does the hanky-panky” hook, and the resonant bell samples cut through the din of the room. “Wolf” was an easy jog, Sanborn’s lanky figure bouncing around his laptop.

Where the recording is polished, Sylvan Esso’s live show was rough around the edges — a kind of dirtied-up alter-ego. It’s an artistic choice, and one that makes sense for capturing and creating energy in front of an audience. But will the dance party version of Sylvan Esso work, long-term? Time will tell. Meath and Sanborn are definitely engaging, and with a performance on The Tonight Show already under their collective belt — and a largely sold-out tour in process that will take them across the country, to Europe and to Mexico — the duo’s success is within reach.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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