Sylvan Esso Plays Ryman

I first heard Sylvan Esso at the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis in September of 2013. I remember it well. They were opening for Volcano Choir, the band I had traveled to Indy to see. When I got there, the duo, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, were already on stage. On the right side stood a tall, lanky dude behind some sort of electronics rig with a MacBook. On the left, a girl with a microphone bounding across the stage in platform sneakers. Their music was electronic, which I’m not normally into. But this music, what I was hearing in that moment, was different somehow–carrying the qualities of crafty songwriting and catchy hooks packaged into a pop music bottle. I was hooked. No, more like completely enamored with their sound.

After the show I met the band at their merch booth and picked up a copy of the only single they had released at the time, a 12-inch single featuring the songs “Play it Right” and “Hey, Mami.” It wouldn’t be until the Spring when their first full-length, self-titled album would be released.

I introduced my wife to Sylvan Esso’s music and she, too, fell quickly in love. In fact, the self-titled album has become a regular feature during after-dinner dance sessions with our kids, especially the song “H.S.K.T,” which our daughter, Nora, refers to as “Mommy’s favorite.”

Their second album, What Now, was released in the Spring of 2017, and with it, a new tour including stops in nearby cities like Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. But, one date in particular, caught our attention: The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Yes, it would have been more convenient to head down to Cinci to catch their show. And we could have done that. But the Ryman, you see, has a history. It’s one of the most fabled, storied, historic venues in the country. But, more than that, it’s probably my wife and my favorite venue–ever. And, when we (by pure luck) ended up with seats in the front row, well…we considered it destiny.

The sold-out show opened with the first track from What Now, “Sound,” a beautifully rendered song that repeats the same verse as it slowly comes together from a somewhat foggy, muddled distance. Alone on stage, Sanborn started the song with the unmistakable sound of a needle being placed on an old record as Meath’s vocals could be heard from somewhere offstage. As the song took shape, Meath walked slowly to the front of the stage, singing, “I was gonna write a song for you / gonna sing it out loud / sing it at such decibels that / all you’ll hear is sound.”

From there, they jumped right into the groovy “Could I Be” from their self-titled album, followed by “Kick Jump Twist,” and continued bouncing back and forth with songs from both albums throughout the rest of their hour-and-half-set. The show was highlighted by an impressive lighting rig that flashed and pulsed and changed with the mood of every ebb and flow of each song, and was apparently designed by a friend of the band. At times the front-of-house lights would cut out, leaving only the angled, purplish-red lights and Meath’s silhouette as she sang and danced across the stage.

The thing I think I was most struck with, though, was how Sanborn and Meath engage the crowd. It’s just the two of them up there, yet they have such a presence, and seem to both be having the time of their lives up there, that you can’t help but feel the same energy. The songs they put together exist on an indie-pop level, sure. But it’s more than that. They are expertly crafted, dynamic, and, well…just really good.

And, while I was excited to get to see one of my favorite groups at one of my favorite venues, I was also a little sad to think that I may never see them in a venue that small ever again. With sold-out shows on many of their tour stops, it seems Sylvan Esso is headed for great things, bigger venues, and larger crowds. But, with music this good from people this passionate, they deserve that and more.

Sylvan Esso’s tour of the States goes through the end of September before heading to Europe through October and November.

Check out Sylvan Esso’s Tiny Desk Concert:

Sylvan Esso “Play it Right”: