Roughly a half-hour before the end of Fleet Foxes near two-hour set at Shelburne Museum on May 26th, the band left the stage to its leader, Robin Pecknold, who shortly thereafter, in his inimitably delicate but full-throated fashion, wailed the following lines from “Oliver James:” ‘The sound of ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear.’ At that moment, the founder of this Seattle-based group might well have summarized the sound(s) that filled the air this cool, ever-so-pleasant night launching Higher Ground’s 2018 Ben & Jerry’s Concerts on the Green series.
It was a rare moment for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the way singing rose to prominence in the sound of Fleet Foxes, albeit only briefly. Otherwise, in contrast to the progression of their recorded work, voices blended within the instrumental mix, most of the harmonies during the course of the evening proffered by Pecknold and bassist Christian Wargo, while other members of the ensemble chimed in, then dropped out to dramatic effect, at various junctures.
All of which served to remind how a label like ‘folk-rock,’ conjuring as it does a late-Sixties nostalgia, doesn’t really fit Fleet Foxes. The acoustic/electric textures they fuse, then integrate with lush vocal harmonies, bring to mind English madrigals and the deeply-echoed tones of ancient church choirs. And make no mistake either, no glib appellation can truly represent the careful craft Robin Pecknold and company apply to his original songs, a consummate display of attention to detail the group replicated fairly faithfully during this concert. Even so, on tunes such as “Keep Time On Me,” the unit never betrayed much sense of being too meticulous for their own good.
On this penultimate show of a month’s worth of road work in support of last year’s, Crack-up, Fleet Foxes tendered Vermont largely the same set they’ve played all tour, a fair amount of which derived from that Nonesuch Records 2008 debut. They did not improvise to any great extent, preferring to string together long suites of songs, the cumulative effect of which was to charm and enchant. And if at times their often-baroque renderings became a bit too heady, the group’s intent remains laudable, that is, to move both minds and hearts. Which the band surely did Memorial Day weekend Saturday night, righteously earning and graciously accepting fervent acclamation from a crowd that alternately cheered them on, sang along (even though the tunes don’t follow conventional structures) and swayed dreamily as dusk gave way to dark.
Free from any of the sometimes precious nature of his allusive lyrics, Robin Pecknold’s affable repartee with the audience occasionally came at the exclusion of anyone except those devotees right upfront. Except for his apparent nervousness—understandable given this is the group’s first significant concert jaunt in years—he might’ve introduced the individual members, not to mention the road techs, who maintained the same clockwork precision as the band’s co-founder with guitarist Skyler Skeljset, changing instruments regularly and often, almost as frequently as multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson: the latter’s percussion, stand-up bass and horn playing were, like keyboardist Casey Wescott’s contributions, the dual cornerstones forged of small touches comprising numbers like “White Winter Hymnal.”
It was altogether remarkable no one on the crew or in the band evinced any sense of hurry in the switching of guitars, mandolin, etc. Instead, a definite sense of purpose arose in the way the group maintained impeccable timing as one number flowed seamlessly into another, formulating intricate arrangements the sometimes balky sound system could not quite do justice. But despite the occasional buzz in the speakers and an overall lack of low tones (apart from the rumble of Matt Barrick’s drums), the audio quality was accurate enough to amplify Fleet Foxes’ somewhat ghostly presence on this stage at the bottom of the Green: the sextet played mainly in the shadows post-sunset, leaving themselves back-lit in the shimmer of stage lights as graphic images from their album cover art shone on the screen behind them.
Subtle but increasingly insistent orchestral washes, including the final and deliberate crescendo following “Helplessness Blues,” punctuated the ambiance these men conjured up beneath the haze of a near-full moon this early summer night. The resulting atmosphere was so vivid it effectively suppressed the recurring glow of cellphone screens cropping up repeatedly at the outset of their appearance.
Photos Courtesy Ross Mickel/Bootlegger’s Beware Photography