Fleet Foxes, Hammersmith Apollo, London
Take That, Stadium of Light, Sunderland
The Seattle sextet are not much to look at, but their soundworld is marvellous (and you even get some Yeats)
Sunday 05 June 2011
With every thousand Fleet Foxes albums sold, Gillette shareholders weep another bitter tear.
Stepping out of Hammersmith Tube station into the evening sunshine, the first thing you see outside The Swan pub is a wall of beards. The Seattle sextet's word-of-mouth success seems to have brought the trend for razor-dodging to some kind of critical mass.
The whole world is here to see them. Not that there's much to look at, beyond projections of wintry branches and galaxies of stars on the floor. Fleet Foxes do the very opposite of stamp their authority on the stage, remaining in a shy huddle yards back. The idea, one supposes, is to "let the music do the talking". It's fortuitous, then, that it speaks volumes.
For a band whose music is often delicate, their sound is powerful. The typical FF song may begin with sunshine-bright guitar-picking out of the Simon & Garfunkel manual but, before long, it builds into a buttressed wall of sound, as though constructed by some medieval Phil Spector.
Some time between Fleet Foxes' slow-burning 2008 debut and this year's Helplessness Blues, to paraphrase "Ziggy Stardust", Pecknold became the special man. FF's second album was a Pecknold solo in terms of conception. His obsessive meticulousness strained his relationship to breaking point and his girlfriend left him (only to return when she heard how good the album was).
Tonight's audience may prefer the early stuff, but Helplessness Blues deserves their love. Its universe is a bleak one, with its tales of failed relationships, mortality and dying ("I wonder if I'll see any faces above me/ Or just cracks in the ceiling," Pecknold muses in "Montezuma"). It's an archaic universe, too, with its dowries and orchards, and references to W B Yeats.
But that's fine, and the jolts into the 21st century, or at least the 20th, are all the more welcome, tonight's most memorable being the squalls of Roxy Music saxophone that disrupt "Blue-spotted Tail". If Fleet Foxes would only get a shave, they'd be near perfect.
Stray a few hundred yards down the wrong road in Sunderland, and suddenly you're in season four of The Wire. You can roam past derelict, boarded-up terrace after terrace, the only sign of human life being the occasional gang of urchins with one BMX between them. Whatever the Big Society is meant to be achieving, it isn't working here. So it's interesting that Take That have opted to launch their Progress tour in the city.
What with one thing or another, the band's likeability has taken some body blows lately. Gary Barlow's come out as a celebrity Tory, Mark Owen's been outed as a tabloid love rat, and Robbie Williams is ... well, Robbie.
Robbie's return – the last card up their sleeves, and his – is the reason for the tour's record-breaking ticket sales. The suspense is milked shamelessly. The other four perform at least five songs without Williams, until a slightly shabby Alice in Wonderland routine for "Shine" ends with a shot of five characters on the screen. When the audience recognises the grinning face in the March Hare outfit, there's mayhem. Suddenly, 30 feet up, a flap opens and Williams abseils to earth, pumped up like Gazza before that FA Cup final, roars through "Let Me Entertain You" amid face-melting pyros, turns a we're-not-worthy bow into a breakdance routine, then stands stock still doing his Mussolini face. It's a hilariously brilliant entrance.
He plays several other solo songs, culminating in a locally adjusted "Angels" ("I'm loving Mackems instead"). Not content with his gig-within-a-gig, he repeatedly attempts to steal the show when the full five are on stage, improvising lines such as "Which one's fat and which one's gay? Between you and me, my money's on J..." and "I just did some coke and I shagged a whore/But that's what a superinjunction is for", doing the Lulu bit in "Relight my Fire", and even cable-diving headfirst while the others are lowered sedately in cages.
Strangely, TT's Nineties hits are left till the show's nearly over, when a piano medley of "Babe", "Back for Good" and "Million Love Songs" gives way to some proper boy-band dancing for "Pray". Then the boys speed off in their sleek tour liner, past Sunderland's abandoned houses to another city the Big Society has left behind.
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