I have written plenty about Fleet Foxes since I started writing this blog, so my passion and high esteem for the band is well documented. Currently the leaders of the field in the ever resurgent worldwide contemporary folk scene, and having released what will almost certainly be top of many end of year lists that grace the music publications and online media at the end of each year, attending the Apollo to see them in the flesh for the first time since hearing them way back in early 2008, was one of my most highly anticipated gigs for quite a while. Front man and songwriter Robin Pecknold and his ability to pen songs that combine the best elements of Paul Simon, Crosby Still & Nash, The Beach Boys, and traditional American and English folk music, and make it their own for the 21st Century, has thrust the band almost reluctantly to the forefront of the folk music scene resulting in this string of London shows which sold out months before they had even released their long awaiting second album.
Attending the first of a 3 night run in London is always a risk. Traditionally if given the choice I will always opt for the second or final night at a venue, assuming there are multiple nights, as I have always found they are the better shows. The band have normally shaken off the first night glitches and have settled into their stride. With unassuming bands such as the Foxes, who will openly admit they are baffled by just how popular they have become on these shores, along with a genuine self-deprecation that isn’t forced, a risk of nerves affecting their performance was high.
Tonight the nerves are evident, but that doesn’t detract from the wondrous sound that fills this fantastic room that I have experienced some of my most treasured musical memories. For Fleet Foxes, to use the most common cliche in the book, it is all about the music. As the lights dim, the band shuffle on stage with no intro track or big bombastic opening, they launch into intrumental ‘The Cascades’ from the recently released Helplessness Blues album. The bands numbers have been expanded by one with multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, who resembles a hobo who has somehow stumbled in through the stage door and found himself with the band on stage. Despite his slightly dishevelled appearance, what he brings with him is undeniable dexterity on a number of instruments such as double bass, viola, saxaphone, to name a few, that has given them the scope to translate their more expansive musical arrangements. The rest of the band have really opened up their musical palate as Christian Wargo, traditionally the bassist in the band, barely features on said instrument. Now sporting the most ‘hippy-like’ appearance, in a band not short of long hair and beards, he is also in possession of the highest vocal register of the four voices that emit beautifully from the stage.
‘The Cascades’ seamlessly launches into ‘Grown Ocean’ one of the many highlights from Helplessness Blues and is the first chance we get to hear those wonderful, faultless harmonies for which they have built their reputation. As minimal as the stage set up is, the same cannot be said for the music, that fills the room with heavenly sweetness. The layers of sound, coupled with Josh Tilman’s thundering drum work makes for a powerful listening experience. Before now I had not really given credit to Tillman and what he brings to the bands sound, but his big, rolling, atmospheric drumming is the real heartbeat of the band and his style really comes into its own in a live environment.
The early part of the set focusses on their most recent material. Each track sounding even more rich and melodic than on record, and a timelessness that already shrouds these songs even within the short period of time they have been in existence. There is just something extra special about these songs in a live setting and performed as Robin Pecknold will want them to be truly heard. In particular ‘Bedouin Dress’ and ‘Sim Sala Bim’ have an extra air of majesty about them this evening, with the former having undergone a slightly different vocal arrangement, the band already building these songs up from the album versions, and it sounds blissfully elegant.
The biggest cheers of the night are saved for the older material. With the new album only officially out for a few weeks before the show, despite being readily available since it leaked online in mid-March, the songs have yet to ingrain themselves enough on the minds of the people who fell for their debut so heavily. Eventually the newer stuff will provoke a reaction similar to the ones that greet the one-two punch of ‘Mykonos’ and ‘Your Protector’ that arrive like old friends seven songs in. There is no doubt that the new material will reach the same level, and further shows 6 months from now will really start to see bigger reactions as the songs become more familiar. But with the near classic status that both songs have already reached, the gig turns from the sublime to truly spellbinding. Not long afterwards the double header of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and ‘Ragged Wood’ raise the roof, and a full band version of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ is performed with an endearing charm.
The aforementioned nerves only become apparent with the between song interaction. Exchanges with the crowd are minimal, rarely moving beyond a courteous and very grateful ”Thanks” and “So hows it going?”. The band, and Pecknold in particular, almost seem shocked that each song receives such rapturous applause at its conclusion, and are grateful that anybdy showed up at all tonight let alone show appreciation for his music. This is despite the fact that they will have played to 15,000 people at the conclusion of this 3 night run. It is endearing and Pecknold at times looks like he wants to say more but stops himself short. A shame really as the countless live footage and bootlegs of the bands first tour, as well as the shows that Pecknold performed solo between the albums, show a quick-witted and naturally humours frontman. What also is apparent from the word go is what a truly exceptional and naturally gifted singer Robin Pecknold is. With such a beautiful tone it would be impossible for anyone to find anything to fault with his voice, and when it is combined with 3 more voices, you really do hear why the praise that continually comes their way is so justified.
At the end of the 3 nights Pecknold stated on Twitter that the band had been intimidated by the size of the venue and thanked the audiences for making them feel welcome, and on that point I can only agree. While the band were playing the audience were completely captivated, and at the quieter, more delicate moments featuring just Robin and an acoustic guitar, you could hear a pin drop. A rarity in a venue of this size and the indifferent nature of a lot of London crowds. This particular London is crowd was far from indifferent, and by the time the final third of the set hits its stride the energy between band and audience is locked in and bring the show to a magical end.
The warm, hazy waltz of new song ‘Lorelai’ and resplendent renditions of ’Montezuma’ and ’He Doesn’t Know Why’, that leads to a mesmerising ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ and ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ ensure the gig is a resounding success even before the perfect encore of a solo Pecknold, performing ‘Oliver James’, followed by an awe-inspiring ‘Helplessness Blues’, see them off in terrific style. The band leave the stage grinning from ear to ear, seemingly still getting their heads around the fact that people enjoy what they do and the absurdity of it all. On a showing like this it is something they will need to get used to for some considerable time to come.