The doors to the Uptown opened at 7 p.m. last night, by which time a line had snaked west, back into the Valentine neighborhood. There were floral peasant dresses. There were daring fedoras. Haircuts so gloriously unkempt! Oh my word, the beards -- the spectacular beards! Everywhere you looked: amazing hair! It was just like that movie Hair (I assume).
They had assembled to see Fleet Foxes, a folk act that, for the moment at least, is having its critical cake and eating its commercial success. In they marched, smiling, vibrant, glistening with a healthy glaze of sweat. They jostled for the best spot in the sauna of the sold-out theater.
Not a bad deal for opener Portland's Alela Diane and Wild Divine, who played to a full floor of fans who didn't want to lose their places. There's plenty to like about Diane, an attractive brunette who led her band through a set of pleasant folk-pop. Her voice tends to settle in a husky middle ground, which can seem repetitive and which, last night at least, made it difficult to understand the words she was singing. But that voice can also dip low and reach high, and when it does, it's kind of thrilling, a special treat. I wish she'd play that card a little more often, but I should probably just be glad that she's not doing the cutesy, showy, Regina Spektor vocal-exercise thing. On the last song of the set, the Wild Divine picked things up, shedding the folk and ripping into a rock jam that recalled Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." It was a good look on them, and it was a little disappointing to see them exit the stage just as things were getting interesting.
Fleet Foxes write sturdy, melodic folk songs adorned with heavenly harmonies and pastoral lyrics. It's a solid formula, and the band has the technical and vocal chops to pull it off. It is not in any way surprising that Fleet Foxes has, in three short years, evolved into a successful touring and recording folk act. What is more surprising to me is the fact that the band is successful outside the folk arena. Its recent album, Helplessness Blues, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard. It's a dark, moody, dreamy folk album whose charms only become apparent after a handful of spins. So why was there a bunch of people with glowsticks hanging out by the soundboard last night? The idiots in front of me ruined many of the silent moments in the band's songs by shouting dumb shit -- I don't doubt the sincerity of their (misguided) enthusiasm, but what's in it for them? How does Fleet Foxes cast such a wide net? What's the formula?
I think I kind of understand the math of it -- it's something like Smart Songwriting + Sensitive + Occasional Big Choruses + Knowing When to Rock Out -- but I know, I know: Who cares? Why can't you just chill and enjoy the show, man? Well, I did enjoy the show!
Frontman Robin Pecknold took the stage grinning, accompanied by his five other bandmates. Everyone wore a variation of the same outfit: nondescript earth-toned pants and shirts. They looked like a bunch of Communists up there. I think one of the guys was even wearing one of those green Cuban Castro hats.
The band opened with "The Cascades," a moody instrumental from Helplessness Blues, then moved into another from the new one, "Grown Ocean." Up front, the crowd was eager. Roars broke out as the band pinballed between furious acoustic throttles and abrupt silences. The rambunctiousness of the crowd occasionally took away from the mood -- you know I want to appreciate the complexity of those harmonies, son! -- but, at other times, it added to the fun. Such are the hazards of being a folk band that sells out the Uptown Theater. Shortly after Pecknold sang the first bars of the pounding, upbeat "Battery Kinzie," I noticed more than a few small clouds of smoke drift up into the darkness atop the audience. The party was in full swing.
The band casually switched instruments throughout the evening, employing a mix of mandolin, stand-up bass, piano, drums, and acoustic and electric guitars. Pecknold broke at least two guitar strings due to intense strumming. At one point, he continued singing harmony as a stage tech came out and helped him switch guitars. His voice suffered not the slightest. I had heard going in that the band could really pull off the vocals live, and boy, do they. They were able to re-create live nearly every harmony on their albums. The beauty and intricacy of the vocal performance was flat-out astounding at times, as good as anything I've ever witnessed.
The band also tends to pick up the pace a little in a live setting. Even the slowest songs had a little extra vigor due partly to the fact that there were six guys up there and partly to the fury they tend to put into playing their instruments. And goddamn, the swagger on "Your Protector": when Pecknold bellowed You runnnnnnnnnnnnnn with the devil, something amazing shot through my body. Adrenaline, I guess. I felt like I could have hoisted an Escalade.
The band closed with "Blue Ridge Mountains," then Pecknold returned to the stage alone. He gave a shout-out to Zebedee's, the 39th Street record store he'd visited earlier in the day. "You guys get some serious deals on old records here," he said, then launched into a solo performance of "Oliver James." The band came back and joined him for "Helplessness Blues," and then we all kind of waded out into the muggy night.
Drops in the River
Sim Sala Bim
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
White Winter Hymnal
He Doesn't Know Why
The Shrine/An Argument
Blue Ridge Mountains
Oliver James (Pecknold solo)