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Double Take: Fleet Foxes bring their harmonies back to Portland for first time since 2012



Seattle band Fleet Foxes returned to Portland for the first time since July 2011. The band took a six-year hiatus following its tour for 2011’s “Helplessness Blues.” Since then, Josh Tillman left the band and became Father John Misty. Singer Robin Pecknold went to Columbia University.

The Emerald attended the sold out show on Thursday night at the Crystal Ballroom. Writers Emerson Malone and Craig Wright had differing opinions of the band’s return. Read below to see their takes on the show, and check out the photo gallery.

  • Seattle band Fleet Foxes perform at its third concert since disbanding in 2012. Fleet Foxes perform at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom on Thursday, May 18 in Portland, Ore. (Craig Wright/Emerald)

Emerson Malone’s take:

Thursday night in Portland marked Fleet Foxes’ third U.S. show in six years. This tour comes on the heels of “Crack-Up,” the band’s third album since 2008. Although Robin Pecknold teased Portland last March when he played a solo show to open for Joanna Newsom, absence made the fond grow harder. A pleasant marquee projected onto stage over a bright decoration of “Punch-Drunk Love” watercolors read: “Welcome to the Show (We Missed You).”

The crowd, a cacophony of plaid and flannel, was enamored but tame. (It’s not easy to cut some rug to “Your Protector,” after all.)

At least two themes have connected the Fleet Foxes’ prior two albums, 2008’s “Fleet Foxes” and 2011’s “Helplessness Blues”: (a) a forlorn existentialism in the lyrics and (b) name-dropping fruit in the summer (“Apples in the summer are golden sweet / Everyday a passing complete” from “The Shrine / An Argument”  and “Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime” from “White Winter Hymnal”).

It remains to be seen if “Crack-Up” — out June 16 from Nonesuch Records — carries the fruit-in-the-summer motif, but this may no longer be the same band that would appropriate the harrowing, bustling visual of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” for an album cover.

The setlist featured a warm cover of the Bee Gees’ “Morning of My Life,” and a great deal of new songs from “Crack-Up,” which felt sullen, dissonant and claustrophobic. Only a flute or a mandolin could cut through the din. The songs had frequent, abrupt change-ups that would pivot from the clamor to a more familiar languid jam, but the album is a departure from the uncluttered, breezy nature of the previous records.

An intimate connection with nature was still tangible in this show; between songs you’d hear the soft sounds of an oar dipping into a river, ambient noise and vague melodies that made song transitions seamless and imprecise.

The songs, nonetheless, were all arranged elegantly. The tenors’ a cappella harmonizing of “White Winter Hymnal” was sublime, and the bricklayer buildup of “He Doesn’t Know Why” exploded into a hyperactive triumph.

With all his “Prairie Home Companion” charm, Pecknold has a warbled voice that is still authoritative and engrossing. “I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate,” he sang from the new album’s title track. In some of the night’s few moments of stillness, since Pecknold was the only one who knew the words, he’d shout over the crowd in the silent venue, his voice awash with reverb.

Follow Emerson on Twitter: @allmalone

Craig Wright’s take: 

In July 2011, Fleet Foxes played what turned out to be one of its final US shows at McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon, before taking a nearly six-year hiatus as a band. You never would have known there was turmoil in the band at that point judging by how happy they appeared onstage. They joked about David Byrne being a wizard who cursed the Northwest to “Remain In Light” when the sun refused to set at 9 p.m.; they were musically locked in and, most importantly, they smiled frequently. (I still shiver thinking about how powerful “Grown Ocean” was as a finale.)

Few would have predicted that Josh Tillman, the heavyset, bearded drummer and harmony singer, would leave the band and go on to become one of the most enigmatic rock stars in the business. As his stoner-prophet alter ego, Father John Misty, Tillman recently released one of the best albums of the year with “Pure Comedy.

As a drummer, Tillman was nothing special. But as a backup singer and stage force, Tillman was impossible to ignore. He often sparked the between song banter that showed the band’s personality and gave its shows another dimension.

Thursday night at the sold-out Crystal Ballroom was Fleet Foxes’s third show since reforming. Musically, the show was beautiful. Robin Pecknold’s voice is as pristine as ever. The band’s harmonies are downright breathtaking and the new material promises to be the most sonically diverse output in its catalog.

Hearing “Drops In The River,” “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “He Doesn’t Know Why” (among others) in person again was a treat, but every time the crowd was about to become more involved, the band played a new song that killed all growing momentum.

The show also lacked personality. They all seemed nervous and disinterested; no one on stage spoke to the audience or to one another, instead opting to adopt shoegazing as the norm. Pecknold timidly said “thank you” a few times, but that was about it for stage dialogue. Pecknold has a wonderful sense of humor, but without Tillman, it is unlikely that he will be provoked into bantering between songs, which seems to be the ultimate loss in Tillman’s absence.

The band’s dynamics (personally and musically) seemed just shy of stage ready. After the “If I had an orchard I’d work ‘til I’m sore” portion of “Helplessness Blues,” Skyler Skjelset plays a triumphant guitar fill on the album — it’s about the only moment in Fleet Foxes’s catalog that you can air guitar to — but it carried no weight live. It was just an emotionless series of notes that blended in to the surrounding sounds and failed to reach the back of the venue.

Before the show began, the screen behind the stage displayed a message that read “Welcome to the show (We missed you).” It feels safe to say that everyone in attendance missed Fleet Foxes too. The band used to have a trifecta live show; they were great musicians, angelic harmonizers and disarmingly funny stage personalities.

Returning after a six-year break with the musicianship and harmonies on lockdown is the biggest concern — and they sound unquestionably great. Most fans seemed completely content with the performance, but having seen the band twice prior to the break be as funny as they were musically gifted, this show lacked a key element that used to set their live shows apart. It’s still (mostly) the same band, but it felt like seeing a good friend from high school after a few years at college: the love is still there, but there is something unshakably different about them.

Follow Craig on Twitter: @wgwcraig

Setlist:

I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar
Cassius, –
– Naiads, Cassadies
Grown Ocean
White Winter Hymnal
Ragged Wood
Your Protector
The Cascades
Mearcstapa
On Another Ocean (January / June)
Fool’s Errand
He Doesn’t Know Why
Mykonos
Third of May / Ōdaigahara
The Shrine / An Argument
Crack-Up

Encore:

If You Need To, Keep Time on Me
Blue Ridge Mountains
Drops In The River
Helplessness Blues

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Craig Wright

Craig Wright

Craig is the senior arts and culture editor for the Emerald. He is from West Linn, Oregon, and is a senior majoring in journalism at the UO. He has made Nick Frost laugh and has been deemed to be "f---ed up in the head" by legendary thrash-metal band Slayer.