By Michael Lello
On their exquisite albums, Fleet Foxes rely on intricacy and delicate interactions between their instruments and rich harmony vocals. On the concert stage, these aspects of the band are still at the core for sure, but the whole thing takes on an intensity that might not be expected from a group that traffics in relatively low-key and mannerly folk music.
Saturday night inside the Tower Theatre, that beautiful balance of intimacy and power was at work for the entirety of the Fleet Foxes’ set as Robin Pecknold led the sextet through 19 songs that spanned the band’s brief recorded output: 2008’s “Sun Giant” EP and breakthrough self-titled record and “Helplessness Blues,” released earlier this month. Opening with the epic and haunting “The Cascades,” an instrumental track from the new album, the tone was set early and achieved all night.
The keystone of Fleet Foxes’ sound is Pecknold’s lead vocals, as well as the vocal harmonies shared by Pecknold, drummer J. Tillman and guitarist Christian Wargo, and to hear those voices soar to the rafters of the grand old venue is to experience the sublime. You could hear it in early-show treats like the bright and simple “Battery Kinzie,” “Sim Sala Bim” — which started subdued before erupting into a maelstrom of layered sound, Morgan Henderson shredding on violin — and “Mykonos,” one the group’s most revered tracks.
The band waited until eight songs into the evening before sharing any songs from “Fleet Foxes,” the album that has so far brought them the most notoriety, and when they came to “Your Protector,” it was worth the wait. With two band members playing flutes during the haunting intro, Pecknold unfurled the pretty song like a medieval troubadour during its dark opening before shifting it into a major key for the chorus, resulting in a tune that was equal parts foreboding and boisterous. “Your Protector” kicked off an extended segment of songs from the self-titled record, including the well-known “White Winter Hymnal,” with its repeated chorale opening, which segued magnificently into “Ragged Wood,” highlighted by woodsy “whoa-ohhs” and a knotty bridge. The perfectly picked tricky portions of “Ragged Wood” stood as one of many examples throughout the night that Fleet Foxes have understated yet remarkable instrumental chops to go with their breathtaking vocals.
“Helplessness Blues” songs “Lorelai” — which bears a strong resemblance to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” – and a stunning “Montezuma,” with vocals more likely to come from a 1950s street corner than a monastery, set up “The Shrine/An Argument,” the centerpiece of “Helplessness Blues,” and, arguably, Saturday’s show. It’s a song of anguish and catharsis, with as many ups and downs as a cinematic masterpiece. When Pecknold sang to an ex-lover of “washing my name from your throat,” his despair was not something just for himself anymore, it was a moment that the audience could share. The song ended with a cacophonous slice of free jazz, bassist Henderson (he played a dizzying array of instruments Saturday) wailing on saxophone, expressing the singer’s desperation in a way even he couldn’t do vocally.
Fleet Foxes closed the set proper with the pastoral “Blue Ridge Mountains” before returning for an encore of “Oliver James” and the “Helplessness Blues” title track. Pecknold sang the stirring “Oliver James” unaccompanied, a sure sign of confidence, and he more than pulled it off, his words ringing out proudly on their own with no companion necessary.
Saturday’s show was a fully realized projection of sounds at turns lushly ornate and sparingly simple, quietly nuanced and loud and broad. Fleet Foxes might seem like a band that’s been handed the keys to the kingdom quite early in their career, but when you consider their recorded output alongside their live prowess, it’s not only reasonable to deem the success deserved, but it’s not crazy to also suspect that they might just be scratching the surface of their abilities and appeal.