It’s been a full two years almost to the day since The Fleet Foxes last performed in the bay area. I remember that last show like it was yesterday,and I wrote one of my first reviews in praise of that show. That last show was clearly special to lead singer Robin Pecknold, having earnestly declared, “This has been our best show ever!” That night it had been clear how much awe and wonder surrounded headlining in such an old and beautiful space.
So I felt very nostalgic and introspective as I crossed the bay for this show. Same venue, same band, same time of year, but so much has changed in these past two years. The band’s sophomore album, “Helplessness Blues” was released just two days before the show, to massive critical praise. From what I have read, the writing and recording of this second album was a long and difficult process for Pecknold in particular, causing him a great deal of self-doubt. I’ve been listening to the new album since it leaked via a Sub Pop snafu back in late March, and was excited to hear the new material live.
The Cave Singers opened the evening with an intense impassioned performance. Their folky blues has been a favorite of mine since I was first introduced to The Cave Singers when the band opened for Death Cab for Cutie back in 2008.
As is often the case, Robin spent a few minutes tuning his guitar right before the show began. Under pure red light, he kept a subdued downward gaze as he tuned his guitar quietly, seemingly blocking out the crowd and venue around him. The crowd was too busy chatting, (as was the case for much of the night) to pay him much attention. A few minutes later the lights went dark and to roaring cheers, the band took the stage.
In an impressively bold move, they opened with a new instrumental The Cascades, and then launched into Grown Ocean and continued to play exclusively new material until the seventh song, Mykonos. Robin always sings with his eyes closed, deep in his own head. Last night was no exception. But usually between songs he’ll smile, look about and share a little. However last night there were no introductions, no between song banter. The crowd, however was full of incessant chatter, a particular pet peeve of mine. All of these elements made it difficult to forge a connection between the band and the audience. I also wonder if the intensely personal nature of the new material and the fact that it’s only been played before a live audience a handful of times contributes to Pecknold’s new-found remoteness between songs.
But this lack of connection in the live setting was completely overshadowed by the hauntingly beautiful music and Pecknold’s heartfelt voice. The harmonies were as crystal pure as ever, wafting through the majority of the cavernous venue. Multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson is a wonderful addition to the band. Throughout the evening he commandeered a stand-up bass, bass clarinet, two-handed tambourines and even a flute. I especially appreciated this extra layer of complexity on some of the band’s classics such as “He Doesn’t Know Why” and Ragged Wood.
When I call these songs “classic” I’m sure there are some that will dismiss the notion, just as they dismiss the band. I’m always amused when I come across the many critics who are
Fleet Foxes haters, usually claiming that the band are ripping off earlier troubadours of folk. Many critics voiced the same complaint about Led Zeppelin as they ushered in a new form of the blues we now call Heavy Metal. In fact there’s a great new documentary, “Everything’s a Remix” that points out how all creativity builds on ripping off the past.
As I told readers last Father’s Day, I grew up with a father that had a great love of 60’s era folk and multi-part harmonies. Albums by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills & Nash, and The Kingston Trio were staples of my musical youth. I’m excited that folk is seeing a resurgence, and that talented musicians like The Fleet Foxes are at the head of the pack.
Towards the end of the evening, Robin finally opened up a tiny bit and shared just a bit of what was in his head. “We love playing here. We played here once before and that was great! This was…OK.” Perhaps the evening was a letdown for Robin, but it wasn’t to me. They were much better than OK – they were quite exceptional, especially given that this was only the third night of the tour.
It’s going to take some time to get back in the groove of playing together again as a live band, getting used to being on the road, and getting used to performing these new tunes. The near perfection that we saw the last time The Fleet Foxes were in town was the result of comfort and ease with the music, intimacy between the band members, and years of constant touring under their belt. I’m sure they’ll not only reach this this pinnacle again, but surpass it as they bring this profoundly beautiful new album to life in front of thousands for months on end. I felt privileged and honored to see these talented and earnest young musicians begin the process of birthing this intensely personal and profound new work in a live setting.
Setlist: Fleet Foxes at The Fox May 5th, 2011
Drops In The River
Sim Sala Bim
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
White Winter Hymnal
He Doesn’t Know Why
The Shrine/An Argument
Blue Spotted Tail
Blue Ridge Mountains
(Joan Baez cover) (Robin solo)