The Bomb Factory, Dallas
Friday, August 18, 2017
For a few minutes in the middle of Fleet Foxes' show at The Bomb Factory on Friday night, Robin Pecknold was alone onstage. Dressed in black, the room dark save for the stars floating into the abyss on the projection screen behind him, Pecknold sang "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," his voice echoing and fluttering through the cavernous former munitions plant. For those few minutes, it was all he needed to hold his 4,000 fans on hand in perfect stillness.
Pecknold, the leader behind the Seattle quintet, sextet or whatever number of musicians he happens to enlist at the time, had plenty of other tools at his disposal Friday. His complicated vocal harmonies and even more complicated time changes built most of the night's 24 songs into standalone suites, lush and breathlessly executed. But at the root of it all was Pecknold's voice, a warm, dextrous and often hauntingly beautiful instrument.
"All I want to talk about at any of these shows is drinking tea," Pecknold said at one point, acknowledging the effort it takes to keep that voice at its peak operating level. "That's not very rock 'n' roll, but it helps."
By the end of Fleet Foxes' two-hour performance at The Bomb Factory, their first in Dallas in six years, the strain on his voice began to show. The band has been on the road since May to promote their new album, Crack-Up, the follow-up to 2011's Helplessness Blues, and Friday night was their last show before taking a monthlong break. Reaching the finish line had Pecknold in an enthusiastic frame of mind; even with his voice giving out, he seemed reluctant to wrap things up.
Fleet Foxes' music tends to rely on a sense of anticipation and release, a fact that holds true on Crack-Up. In many ways, the album, released in June, is a break from the band's intricately arranged chamber folk, however subtle that break may be. There's more of a groove to the material on Crack-Up, and while the reaction to those songs sometimes suffered from the fans' lack of familiarity, more uptempo numbers like "On Another Ocean" and "Third of May/Odaigahara" had some of the best payoffs of the night.
Having that kind of variety in the band's arsenal helped as it moved up to a bigger venue than the theaters it's accustomed to and, ultimately, best suited to. Some of the older songs suffered, in particular "Mykonos" from the band's self-titled debut. The in-the-round vocals were spoiled by the harmonies being buried in the mix. Considerably higher in the mix — at times too high — was the bass, which had the unexpected benefit of highlighting how, beneath their dreamy, folkie affectations, these are rock songs at their core.
Pecknold has a knack for conjuring an ancient feel with the Fleet Foxes. The stain-glass harmonies, in particular, have a worn-in, mystical quality, as though the music has been passed down through the generations. But this isn't the folk music of the old world or Appalachia, or even the Carter family. It's the puritanical folk of the '60s, like the Kingston Trio, or of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who pass back and forth to rock 'n' roll as they please. In fact, the flat-footed drumbeat of "Battery Kinzie," played mid set, felt like pure garage rock.
More often than not, those roots came through more subtly. The tightly sprung harmonies on "White Winter Hymnal" felt like the Beach Boys singing in a cathedral while the jangly incantation of "Helplessness Blues" could trace its roots to the Byrds. Both were highlights of the set, delivering the golden, elliptical melodies that are the band's hallmark, but both were also built on the modern concept of pristine studio production. If there's anything that Pecknold seemed to take away from the band's post-Helplessness Blues hiatus, it was an appreciation for simplification, with the newer songs moving in waves rather than as a multitude of interwoven parts.
The simplest structure of all, of course, was Pecknold performing by himself, and he returned to do just that for the encore. The raw, unadorned delivery was a release of its own, the perfect contrast to what had come before it and bookend to the night. As it was, Pecknold played on for a few more songs, taking requests from the audience and bringing the band back out for the finale, "Crack-Up." After six years of waiting, though, it was hard to complain about having too much of a good thing.
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"I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar"
"On Another Ocean (January/June)"
"He Doesn't Know Why"
"Tiger Mountain Peasant Song"
"White Winter Hymnal"
"Third of May/Odaigahara"
"The Shrine/An Argument"
"Blue Ridge Mountains"
"On A Good Day"