Last updated on July 14th, 2023 at 11:29 pm
I don’t often get to attend concerts where I’m more familiar with the artist’s name than their material. Usually when I see a headliner on the First Avenue Main Stage, I know at least two or three of their songs well.
So I was excited to see Fleet Foxes last night, mainly wondering if any of their unknown-to-me songs would stick in my head. Or would they strike me as just another Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons that spends whole sets pretending they’re allergic to the snare drum and treating the electric guitar as an afterthought?
Fleet Foxes certainly trends toward the “lighter side” of the folk spectrum, preferring to package their complex narratives inside a symphony of near-perfect instrumentation and vocals. There are no jagged edges here, only fluffy clouds over calm waters. But it’s far from easy listening; sure, you could have it in the background while painting a fresco, but you could just as easily don headphones and immerse yourself in the stories.
Bandleader Robin Pecknold exhibits an easy charm on stage, wearing a Paul Rudd-like smile between somber melodies and brief expressions of gratitude to the audience. His vocals evoke a mellower Neal Young, spinning yarns inside an ancient cavern filled with multi-talented musicians. Softened by a sea of backing vocalists during the catchier oohs and ahhs, Pecknold’s clear voice was freed to deliver his introspective verses.
With songs like these, it’s hard to tell what kind of mood they’re expected to evoke. Are we in a Victorian church, soberly meditating while the choir soars and incense fills our noses? Or are we in a medieval tavern, swinging pints of ale at each other while loudly singing along with the traveling bard? I think the Foxes’ vocal approach of 4-8 voices singing together suggests the former, whereas the simpler 2- or 3-part harmonies of the Jayhawks and Turn Turn Turn conjure the latter.
On this festive Fourth of July, the sold-out crowd helped Fleet Foxes sway closer to the party than the pew, despite the church-like lighting and backgrounds on stage. Pecknold and his bandmates clearly fed off the energy of the night.
I was particularly impressed with how the group balanced a small orchestra of instruments and vocals, with many individuals forming a sum much greater than the parts. Skyler Skjelset and Casey Wescott found myriad ways to blend in and provide critical support via guitar and keys. At the same time, Morgan Henderson seemingly played whatever instrument the song needed, juggling upright bass, flute, saxophone, and percussion.
Despite all the instrumental prowess on stage, some of the most significant reactions came from when the Foxes either ended or opened with a capella or vocal-focused sections. One of their catchier songs, “White Winter Hymnal,” sees them opening and ending the song with gospel-level singalongs, putting the audience in a trance.
Perhaps the embodiment of the night’s balance was “Mykonos,” which opens with gigantic vocal oohs and then tells a compelling story between more choruses of oohs. This one passes the goosebump test, along with my favorite song of the evening, “Phoenix.” With a particularly hooky line, “I was trying to find my way, I was thinking my mind was made,” this Pecknold collaboration with Big Red Machine was supported by every instrument in the band, including the tasteful horn section.
While intensely beautiful, mellower songs like “Mearcstapa” or “Featherweight” struggled to hold my attention. And some, like “Third of May,” left me puzzled as it bounced between catchier vocal oohs and cacophonous outbursts from the band. This group is comfortable stretching the boundaries of traditional arrangements to push the envelope and challenge listeners.
And clearly, this audience was less easily confused than me, since they ate it up.
Opener Uwade added a mythical element to the show, with an otherworldly voice seemingly reaching deep into my subconscious to unearth archetypal siren songs. Her second number, “Do You See the Light Around Me,” has such powerful melodies that she could hum it in a subway and suck me in.
Her light strumming and finger-picking of the electric guitar were sufficient accompaniment, but it was still pretty cool when she brought Fleet Foxes bassist Christian Wargo and touring drummer Christopher Icasiano on stage for her last few songs. I was thrilled to see the Foxes reciprocate by having her sing during their early take on “Wading In Waist-High Water.” I enjoy seeing touring groups help each other out during their respective songs, and these two artists pair with one another exceptionally well.
I think my initial skepticism about Fleet Foxes was largely unfounded. I may not become a devoted convert, but I’m definitely willing to show up for an occasional potluck.
As I left, a light breeze was blowing through downtown while echoes of fireworks rang from the western skies beyond Target Field. It was as if the Foxes had brought us cool breezes from Seattle along with their musical fireworks, lighting us up while cooling us down.
Walking to my car, the singalong outro of “Mykonos” played in my head:
“You go, wherever you go today. You go today.”
After tonight, I’m betting that wherever I go, I’m much more likely to have some Fleet Foxes songs along for the ride.