It’d been a while since I’d written anything, and a Fleet Foxes concert at Malkin Bowl is a dreamy end-of-summer way to come back into it.
Since I had nothing else going on, I walked out of the buzz of the city into the relative quiet of the park and made my way into an outdoor venue slowly filling up. An early show, with doors opening at 5:30, had those lucky to not be working setting up their blankets in key viewing nests before a majority showed up to find their own spots for the evening. There was an interesting mix of music playing as the clock ticked down to the start of the show, including: a Japanese indie/folk/other band (no idea who) that played for the majority of the wait, as well as The Beegees’ ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ and John Lennon’s ‘Dear Yoko’ back to back, a very minimum of 5 times in a row. Thankfully, Natalie Prass and her band saved us by taking the stage and playing a short, 30 minute set.
Prass and her band are out of Richmond Virginia, which I’m sure definitely lends to the country sounds of her music but finding out that she was a keyboardist for Jenny Lewis’ touring band shouldn’t come as a surprise, as there is some very clear influence weaved through-out her set that night. With a song selection that started with some funk and soul sounds, including the song ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me’ from her self-titled album; some spacey synth and upbeat dance organ; slowing down with a country twang in ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’; the poppy ‘Bird Of Prey’. Prass ended their set in a sadly sweet but upbeat and manic way with the tropical, jazzy song ‘Jass’ (I’m not going to touch that pun), which she dedicated to Jessi Zazu, who sadly passed away just the day before, after battling cervical cancer, at the age of 28. In a roughly 30 minute set, Prass and her band weaved through an impressive list of sounds and emotions and although I’d never heard her before, her live performance showed pretty clearly why her self-titled album received the acclaim that it earned.
With Natalie Prass having left the stage, and about 40 minutes of prep having gone by, the lights went dark and Seattle-formed indie folk band, Fleet Foxes took the stage to the sound of brass playing an intro before they burst into ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’, the opening song from their new album Crack-Up. Driving guitars and percussion moved the song forward as frontman Robin Pecknold’s voice floated above it, with the band lifting his vocals up with their harmonies. Having not heard their newest album yet, ‘Cassius, –‘ and ‘- Naiads, Cassadies’ seemed to flow so well together that I only caught that they were two separate songs because the transition seemed slightly off as they moved one song to the other. Even with these few songs being played, there had already been plenty of changes in instrumentation: electric to acoustic guitar; a swap of electric that showed off what looked like a bodiless or at least see-through body guitar; flute; tambourine; and these were only a start.
‘Grown Ocean’ from Helplessness Blues is another strum-driven song that had beautiful harmonies, and ‘Ragged Wood’ from their self-titled album had the whole audience joining in with the singing, myself included. ‘Your Protector’ was another very popular one for the crowd to join in with, as it seemed that any song from the self-titled album was a fan favourite. ‘The Cascades made a beautiful instrumental intro that lead into ‘Mearcstapa’ from the newest album. Multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, previously of Blood Brothers among many others, started off by playing tuba and then switched over to flute at one point. Over the course of the show he played the upright bass, a bass clarinet, and possibly other instruments that I missed, in addition to the tuba, flute, and tambourine mentioned earlier. Having joined the band in 2010 and playing on Helplessness Blues, and Crack-Up, he has clearly more than earned his place.
‘On Another Ocean (January/June)’ and ‘Fool’s Errand’ followed up before they played ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ from the self-titled album, which is one of my personal favourites, and ‘Battery Kinzie’ from Helplessness Blues. With that, most of the band left the stage leaving Pecknold solo to banter with the crowd a bit (being asked what kind of tea he was drinking, and when he responded with “throat coat tea” the crowd went nuts, leading to him replying, “Aw…you like throat coat tea better than new songs,”) and also to play ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’. As the song nears its end, Pecknold breaks it down a bit before he just hammers away hard on the acoustic guitar as he gets to the lines, “I don’t know what I have done / I’m turning myself to a demon.” It’s one of those musical moments that gives shivers down your spine.
With that, the band came back together and while preparing their next song, Pecknold (I believe it was), starts singing some of ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ and gets goaded into singing more of it as the band joins in briefly, which got a laugh. Although they didn’t play through the song, the crowd wasn’t too disappointed when they started playing ‘Mykonos’. Thumping drums and pounding guitars backed up Pecknold’s strong voice and the beautiful harmonies of the band on what is easily one of their best songs. Though as I say that, ‘White Winter Hymnal’ followed up and had just as many people cheering and singing along. There was another brief musical interlude as the band played a bit of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ before cutting to ‘Third Of May/Ōdaigahara’ from the new album. There were some strobe-like lights flashing as the song went heavy and then into its second half and thankfully the crowd didn’t all drop to the ground from the blast. Another song with a strong two-parts to it followed up: ‘The Shrine/An Argument’.
Though the album Helplessness Blues didn’t blow me away like the self-titled album, this song in particular definitely did. With half the song being light, flowery, and sweet, the other half is dark, heavy, and has some of the most powerful vocals from Pecknold that I’ve heard across his discography. Being able to hear the song live and experience him hit the apex of the line, “Sunlight over me, no matter what I do,” is shattering and nigh-euphoric. Henderson’s playing on the bass clarinet really adds to the maddening feel of parts of the song as his fingers flit across the keys as he blows into it. That performance is difficult to follow up but since I’m a huge fan of ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ from the self-titled album, it wasn’t too hard to stay deep into the music. The set wrapped up with the song ‘Helplessness Blues’ from the album of the same name, which was a strong note to end on.
Naturally there was an encore, which started off with just Pecknold playing a cover of Joan Baez’s version of ‘Silver Dagger’ as well as the song ‘Oliver James’. Although some people were hoping for some of his solo material, I loved ‘Silver Dagger’ and ‘Oliver James’ seems a reliable standard (though I loved it as well, all the same). The band came back out to close the night with the final song from the new album, with the same name, ‘Crack-Up’. With that, the night was over and I was left to think over the night and what I’d write.
First off, I want to really make a point that Robin Pecknold is an extremely strong frontman, with an incredibly powerful voice. He maintained it over a two hour set, supplemented by water and throat coat tea, only having his voice crack a couple times and break only once that I heard (which was followed up by an audible, “Fuck!”). With some vocalists it might be a bit disappointing but for Pecknold, I just have a hard time believing he was able to sing so strong for a two hour set with only a couple imperfections that didn’t remotely effect my enjoyment or experience. Now that I’ve said that, the rest of the band deserves as much accolade for their performance. Multiple members of the band played more than one instrument and even if they didn’t, the harmonies were beautiful and seemingly perfect and all members seemed to be tight with one another in each and every song. Fleet Foxes were amazing live and for anyone who enjoys music, I recommend going out and seeing them.