Coming into Fleet Foxes' show at the Crystal Ballroom last night, a little tentativeness was to be expected. After all, it was only the band's third show in five years. And playing Fleet Foxes songs again isn't something you can jump back into easily, especially not this iteration. For all of its reputation as a "log cabin folk band," the group isn't writing simple campfire singalongs, at least not since the first album. With 2011's Helplessness Blues, the band showcased a sprawling, progressive ambition, and if the new songs it played are any indication, its sound is only growing more expansive and complex. So if the show moved a bit gingerly, perhaps that should be forgiven.
But the sense of holding back was palpable. Opening with a suite of songs from its upcoming third album, Crack-Up, the performance—part of a run of West Coast theater gigs that began in Missoula and ends in its hometown of Seattle—had the air of a dress rehearsal, meant for shaking out the stage rust and hitting the lighting cues. Singer and brief Portlander Robin Pecknold, looking very much the part of "the guy from Fleet Foxes," with a scruffy beard and strands of hair poking out from underneath a beanie, stood at a three-quarter profile much of the night, looking down at his guitar and rarely talking beyond a few mumbled "thank you's." When he turned to face new drummer Matt Barrick, previously of the Walkmen, it seemed less to engage in bandmate camaraderie than to make sure he was hitting his parts. (Josh Tillman abdicated the throne after the last tour and went solo. You now may know him as Father John Misty.)
Related: "Fleet Foxes' Top Five Beefs."
While there were no obvious flubs, the detached concentration offered little to hold onto. Those famous harmonies glistened but never quite ascended to heaven. And filled as they were with painterly textures—organ, flute, French horn, bowed guitar—new songs like "Third of May/Odaigahara" and "On Another Ocean (January/June)" seemed to stretch out for miles without ever really traveling anywhere. The playing felt light and brushed, and while that's something of the band's signature, the details dissipated before reaching the back of the room; in the quietest moments, you'd think you were watching an opening act from how loud the crowd talked over them.
Tellingly, the material that actually connected was also the most contained. A stretch of songs from the band's 2008 self-titled debut—"White Winter Hymnal," "Ragged Wood" and "Your Protector"—was the only part of the set that seemed to really move rather than drift along. And when Pecknold began the encore alone with an acoustic guitar, singing "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," that's when the audience finally fell into full, rapt attention. (Well, except for the guy who had the temerity to shout "Freebird!") Earlier, fans had shouted "welcome back" between songs. But it took until the end of the night for that statement to feel justified.
All photos by Thomas Teal.