The combination of electropop mechanics and human soul has been a feature of rock and pop music for decades, but there are still few combos who just get it right. The Durham, NC duo of singer Amelia Meath and electronics guru Nick Sanborn, AKA Grammy-winning act Sylvan Esso, are definitely one of those, as they’ve proven for three albums of minimalist indie pop, hits like “Ferris Wheel,” and a great deal of acclaim. They proved it again for their debut appearance on the Austin City Limits stage.
Surrounded by a circle of lights like one of the rings of Saturn, the pair opened with What If, the robotic ballad from the band’s Grammy-feted third LP Free Love. That was followed immediately by “Ferris Wheel,” the groovy pop song that’s reiterated their place on the map. “Give me a ticket to ride that train!” the distinctively-dressed Meath demanded next on “Train,” a tribute to the pop that inspires them, filtered through their own twenty-first century sensibilities, followed immediately by the epic “Dress.” The electronics burbled in the background as Meath greeted the crowd, before upping the rhythm component for “Die Young,” a showcase for the singer’s emotionally raw singing and undulating moves. The angular “Sunburn” was as much a showcase for partner Sanborn’s animated manipulation of his electronics setup, triggering beats and sounds live as he also fingered his synthesizer. “That’s the first time we ever played that song to anybody,” Meath enthusiastically noted.
The shimmering “Frequency” returned SE to its latest record, before they returned to the land of new tunes with “Look At Me,” probably the most overtly poppy tune so far, even as it ends with Sanborn live remixing his partner’s vocal excursions. Surrounded by her own ethereal voices, Meath led the synths into “Rooftop Dancing,” the contemplative song that’s a highlight of Free Love and a clear crowd favorite. The band dipped into their self-titled debut for “Hey Mami” before leaping into What Now’s sizzling “Radio,” the ever-escalating energy of which drove the audience wild. After that dynamic performance, the pair set the beats aside for “Free,” a heart-on-sleeve ballad that may have been quiet, but didn’t stint on intensity. The synths drifted into the air before being brought back down by the throbbing bass pule of “Coffee,” another audience favorite that found them singing the Tommy James & the Shandells lyric Meath borrows, “My baby does the hanky panky,” back to her. Meath then got down to some dancing of her own with “Numb,” her energetic moves giving the crowd a buzz.
Sanborn thanked the crowd and the show, before the rhythms once again kicked in for “Echo Party,” another new song. The band ended the main set with the debut’s “Play It Right,” a vigorous clap-along that earned Esso hearty huzzahs and demands for more. Which the audience got, as the duo retook the stage with a “Gee whiz,” before launching into “H.S.K.T.,” a clever recasting of the children’s rhyme about “head, shoulders, knees and toes” into a pulsating dance tune. The band’s love of melody came back strong for “Rewind,” garnering prolonged cheering and Meath thumping her hand over her heart. Sylvan Esso ended the show with Free Love’s “Make It Easy,” a gentle ushering back into that good night. It was a thrilling show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48.