At heart, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are folk performers. Just a few years ago, both artists were deeply entrenched in projects — the Appalachian roots trio Mountain Man for Meath and heady folk-rock jammers Megafaun for Sanborn. When not touring the globe, headlining giant festivals or dropping new singles on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the duo, also a romantic couple, live in a rustic cabin on the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina.
As Grammy-nominated Sylvan Esso, they now make groove-inflected electronic music that forces listeners to occupy the dance floor; they and their fans can shimmer and shake their anxieties and hang-ups away with a cool yet shining intensity. At the heart of their tracks are simple mantras. “Get up, get down,” Meath intones over and over with trancelike reverence on 2015’s breakout single “Coffee.” Elsewhere, she nervously chirps, “Dance for the camera, dance for the shutterbug,” and with the might of a heavenly choir implores, “Hey mama, won’t you come down to the river?”
These phrases are modern takes on classic folk themes. Odds are pretty high that Meath and Sanborn could make their songs sound beautiful performed with simple acoustic guitars and banjos. However, they’ve chosen a different path.
What sets them apart is the presentation. Sanborn’s mix-board beats and Meath’s rangy vocals turn their folk ditties into pure dance-hall bangers. And just like the old folkies used to turn rustic barns into fireside stampedes, Sylvan Esso can transform cavernous indoor music halls into full-out dance parties.
Such was the scene Tuesday night at Bomb Factory as the old munitions assembly creaked with energetic delight throughout the duo’s captivating 90-minute set. Dallas, it seems, has an affinity for Sylvan Esso.
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“Wow! There are 3,000 of you here on a Tuesday night,” Sanborn said a few songs into the proceedings. “You know, since day one, you guys have been a hub for our band. We love coming here,” he continued, to great applause.
Just six months since fans packed the Granada Theater for Sylvan Esso's last area show, enthusiastic fans ready to revel filled the much larger Bomb Factory. They roared with delight and showered the duo with reverence — and for Meath, a bouquet of flowers — at the conclusion of each song and shouted out declarations of love and devotion when not singing along mightily to each word.
These eager attendees showed up early as a steady line snaked its way around the corners of Canton Street before doors opened. Folks wasted little time filling up the floor areas to get a prime location once allowed inside. As showtime neared, the swollen crowd reached all the way back to the merchandise booths, where the cash registers kept a steady click throughout the evening. (Sylvan Esso is probably the first band we've seen that sells sports bras alongside the array of T-shirts, hats and albums.)
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Meath and Sanborn have used the past few years on the road to smooth out and coordinate their act. In her signature platform athletic shoes, Meath cuts slinky dance moves and mini feats of gymnastics as she wears out a steady path around the perimeter of the stage, never missing a beat and avoiding Sanborn’s frequent bouts of coordinated dancing. Her vocal range is impeccable; she deftly pulled off full-throttle yelps on “Wolf,” commanded the scope of pop masterpiece “The Glow” and led the crowd in a perfect singalongs over the choruses of “PARAD(w/m)E” and “H.S.K.T.," where it proved mesmerizing to hear the masses singing along to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
Sanborn, stage right, hovers over his sound console with hunched shoulders and quiet intensity. Every few seconds, he bobs around and slithers to the music with a groove that looks awkward at first, but he quickly adapts to the mood and setting. Like the math whiz who slays the prom with his DJ skills or the cool dad who impresses his kids at the birthday party, he cuts a style that proves irresistible to ignore.
After bringing the house down with a pulverizing version of “Radio,” Meath and Sanborn returned for a three-song encore. The crowd, fully intact, of course, swayed along in unison, arms outstretched to the boozy beats of “Rewind” and “Play It Right.”
The audience summoned one last hurrah for the departing duo and, in a scene right out of a movie, kept the party going after the house lights came up. As Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” blasted over the house PA, much of the crowd remained on the dance floor, joyfully bouncing the remainder of their collective energy away before hugging one another and heading back out into the night — solid evidence of the communal joy live music can encourage and further proof that Sylvan Esso is one inspiring duo.