Fleet Foxes won over the hearts of many a harmony-loving, folk-fond listener in 2008 with their impressively fully formed eponymous debut. The build up of anticipation for this year’s follow up, Helplessness Blues, must have been a heavy weight – though the six-piece look almost surprised anyone’s showed up at all tonight. Frontman Robin Pecknold appears blushingly grateful for every wave of adoring applause, and the rest don’t exactly showboat; there’s just a bit of earnest head-nodding and foot-shuffling.
But there’s no doubt that musically they’ve risen to the challenge and deserve every moment in the spotlight – and the show time is generous, with the band covering nearly every song from both albums.
Throughout, the lush, layered instrumentation and warm vocal harmonies match those of the records, with an occasional boost of chugging live power. Then there’s that magical tingle – as on, say, the opening moments of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, which develops into a thing of languorous beauty, or the slightly pared-back beginning of “Montezuma”. After Pecknold sings in clear but yearning tones “So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?”, he’s joined by a chorus of ohs and ahs that lift the spirits.
Fleet Foxes also use those harmonies to turn their satisfyingly structured melodies into something more atmospheric; the vocals on the epic “The Shrine/An Argument” open with a certain smoky menace, then after building to the closest thing the Foxes get to a rock out, we’re snuck back into slow eerie harmonising about, erm, apples (somewhat of a recurring theme, as we’ll see).
In the same way that if you didn’t like the first album the second is unlikely to win you round, if you don’t like the records you won’t love this live either – but for fans, the show is a joyous swirl through favoured folksy tunes, closely-spun voices and multi-layered musicianship (they play many an instrument, from mandolin pluckings to waltzing piano parts).
While it all sounds uplifting, Fleet Foxes’ more recent lyrics strike a note of lament and listlessness – as on the final number “Helplessness Blues”. Pecknold gives a rather pretty howl of longing for a sense of purpose in life and winds up wishing to work himself raw in an orchard. Let’s hope he resists the temptation to escape to the countryside – Fleet Foxes have surely found their purpose right here onstage.