In 2008, Fleet Foxes filled smaller venues across the country to promote their self-titled debut, which was certainly one of that year’s biggest successes. Fortunate as I was to see them play in what is essentially a rec center, it was still interesting to watch these immensely talented musicians play such amazing material, while seeming a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Then there was a two year hiatus before the release of Helplessness Blues, a time during which both singer Robin Pecknold and drummer J. Tilman toured independently and fans gnashed their teeth in anticipation of getting the whole band back together. Regardless of anyone’s initial feelings about the new album, it is clear from their live performance at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on Saturday that the wait was well worth it.
Even if you have a “take it or leave it” reaction to Fleet Foxes’ recorded material, their live show is undeniably awesome. It is as if the record is doing the best that it can, but can barely capture the entire nuance that makes these songs so lush and layered, so purely enjoyable. Each one, it seems, is performed live exactly as it is meant to be, some slightly louder and more forceful, some slightly more restrained. But by far the most impressive thing is the band’s comfort with their material. These are no easy harmonies, no simple arrangements. Yet they are all performed with a mastery that is rare in this era where studio smoke and mirrors can make some act’s live show nearly unrecognizable from their album.
As could be expected, the focus of the show is entirely on the music. Between sets Pecknold barely spoke, except on occasion to gush thanks to the audience and reiterate how lucky they felt to be there. He promised he wasn’t pandering, and no one seemed inclined to disagree. J.Tillman offered occasional witty quips, as well as a light jazz interlude as the rest of the band tuned their instruments. Their humble stage presence was so relaxed we almost forgot we were in an amphitheater surrounded by hundreds of people. Musically, they moved seamlessly between old and new material, opening with the soaring “Mykonos,” and later moving without pause from “Montezuma,” to “White Winter Hymnal,” and “Ragged Wood.” The encore, including an overtly auto-biographical song of lost love performed by a solo Pecknold, highlighted the fact that even their best older material, in this case “Blue Ridge Mountains,” sounds of the same kind of maturity and strength as is heard in “Helplessness Blues.”
Saturday night made it clear that this is not a band that is going to find longevity from creating hit albums, but rather that they will be able to satisfy their devoted fans, and hopefully themselves, by improving upon a consistent sound. If what they presented Saturday is any indication, Robyn Pecknold and crew will continue to write technically beautiful folk songs they can perform impeccably and we will get to sit back, listen, and enjoy. We’re pretty lucky, if you ask me.