Fleet Foxes shine in Boston

A review of Fleet Foxes at the Orpheum Theatre on May 17, 2011

, Staff Writer

Touring in support of their sophomore release, Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes hit Boston on Tuesday night for a sold out show at the the venerable Orpheum Theatre. Though it was a short evening, their 75-minute performance was masterful, translating their rich sound perfectly from studio to stage.

Hailing from Portland, Fleet Foxes earned a name for themselves in 2008 with their self-titled debut, which seamlessly blended elements of folk music, traditional pop sensibilities, and grand, sweeping climaxes. With intricate vocal harmonies, the band brought a deep and rich sound wherever they performed. Their anticipated follow-up, Helplessness Blues, came out earlier this month to similar acclaim, reaching #4 on the Billboard 200.

Anticipation was high, and a deafening cheer rose from the crowd as the six members of the band took the stage. Lead singer Robin Pecknold and lead guitar Skyler Skjelset walked out donning appropriately-folksy winter hats and acoustic guitars. The guys wasted no time getting started, jumping into the instrumental piece “The Cascades”. Pecknold and Skjelset wove Baroque melodies around each other, bringing the song to peaks and valleys throughout.

From there, it was an effortless transition into “Grown Ocean”, the first vocal song of the evening. Pecknold’s vocals were absolutely impeccable this evening, jumping up and down through range with no trouble. The rest of the band provided perfect harmonies throughout the evening, and Joshua Tillman’s drumming laid down heavy downbeats without getting in the way.

Early on, the show’s biggest shortcoming became clear, and it was no fault of the band’s: Fleet Foxes’ sound is huge, sweeping, and filled with intricate layers. Unfortunately, the Orpheum’s PA could barely handle all that was going on, and the first few songs were peaking pretty bad, so unfortunately a lot of the higher-end acoustics were distorting. Credit goes to the soundboard engineer for fixing the problem within five songs, though.

“Grown Ocean” faded quietly into a silent a cappella section to end. The audience was simply enraptured, hanging onto every note. The band then moved into “Drops In The River”, a cut off of their Sun Giant EP. The song really showcased the band’s Simon and Garfunkel-esque harmonies, intricate three-part vocals weaving in and around each other, and built to a tremendous climax seemingly out of nowhere.

The crowd was officially warmed up. At the beginning of “Batery Kinzie”, a wave of activity took hold, and the once docile audience immediately bolted to their feet, as if inspired by the song’s triumphant tone. Robin was visibly pleased, laughing a bit in between verses. “I think that was the fastest change from a mellow theater show to a stand-up concert I’ve ever seen,” he chuckled afterwards. The band seemed visibly energized by this sudden burst of audience participation, and played the rest of the set with a sort of grateful intensity.

“Bedouin Dress” is almost a Fleet Foxes impression of Belle & Sebastian. Morgan Henderson put down his upright bass for a few minutes and regaled us with a crisp solo in between verses.

He kept the fiddle in-hand for “Sim Sala Bim”, the beginning of which gave Pecknold a chance to show off his chops, taking the spotlight for some solo guitar and singing. The song gave way to a brief mandolin solo by Casey Wescott before ending. It was one of the only times in the show where the band would open up their songs for any sort of break from the studio cut, but with songs as rich as these, hearing a straightforward performance is a huge treat.

The next few songs was a continuous stream of energy. Fleet Foxes really brought out their brightest and most danceable tunes for the middle of the set, and the audience responded in kind. “Ragged Wood” had everyone singing along and dancing happily, and Skjelset busted out a bright and skillful solo.

“Montezuma” brought things back down to a normal level. The band returned to their subdued frontier sound, with calm backup vocals over Pecknold’s warm voice and simple guitar strumming. “The Shrine/An Argument” was by far his most impressive performance, really bringing soul and passion to the song, ripping into the chorus with abandon. From there, it was a straightforward performance of “Blue Spotted Tail” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” to close out the show.

Where some bands simply run through their songs in unimpressive fashion, Fleet Foxes do an excellent job of engaging the audience and bringing something new to their live show. Even though the songs are virtually note-for-note renditions of what appears on the album, their music virtually demands to be listened to in a large hall filled with reverb. Their virtuosic harmonies are enhanced by this setting, and the more intimate moments with the audience are palpable. This is a band doing something entirely unique, musically, masterfully incorporating traditional folk sensibilities with 60s pop and modern indie rock. The wait between albums was well worth it.

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