Concert Reviews

Last Night: Fleet Foxes and Cave Singers at Palladium Ballroom

Fleet Foxes, Cave Singers

Palladium Ballroom
May 11, 2011

Better Than: Seeing a bad band in a good venue.

Based on the release of the Fleet Foxes' brilliant, self-titled 2008 debut -- along with their new record Helplessness Blues, which was released last week -- it wouldn't be hard for one to predict that the band's sold-out performance at Palladium Ballroom this week would be among the best-received concerts in Dallas in 2011.

Even taking into account that it's only May, you'd have to figure that it'd at least be a shoe-in for top five concerts of the year consideration.

Unfortunately for the fans of the Seattle folk heroes, the venue and band suffered from a serious mismatch.

A venue like Palladium Ballroom is made for explosive performances, complete with visuals that are sure to reach even the folks in the back of the room. But Fleet Foxes showed up with little more than their beards, some acoustic guitars and a few mandolins, adamantly demanding that the music stand on its own.

And it would have, had the band played in a more fitting venue like, say, The Bass Performance Hall, or The Meyerson Symphony Center -- somewhere where the audience could hear the dusty ring of Josh Tillman's vintage drumset or the subtle tones of Skyler Skjelse's trebled-out lead guitar lines.

Instead, the band was booked at a big rock venue where the drum sounds were dull thuds and the guitar was lost in the ether. Perhaps the chasm between the band and the audience members not located within 15 feet of the stage could have been bridged with some sort of backdrop, video or maybe a more varied use of the stage lights, which seemed to be set simply to "on" for the entire show. The only thing the audience got was the band -- six guys onstage, accompanied only by their instruments. In a more intimate venue, it would have worked; Fleet Foxes played brilliantly, working their way through a near-perfect set, hitting every note with ease, showcasing impeccable four-part harmonies, and, at moments, transcended the ill-fitting venue.

But, like the band's name, those moments were fleeting. They were likely chased off by lead singer Robin Pecknold's discomfort being in the spotlight.

"How's it going?" he dryly asked the audience during almost every one of the band's extended between-song pauses, which came frequently.

At one point he even pointed at an audience member and joked, "You look bored." He was right. In their defense, though, the band took a lot of time to tune their instruments. See, the focus here was on perfection, not so much on performance.

The set started with a handful of songs from Helplessness Blues. "Grown Oceans," the record's second single, came second on the setlist. The band played through it, and the other songs from the new album, with a fresh energy.

The audience seemed to be divided, though. Some sang along with the new songs, while others clearly came to hear songs from the band's debut, which they didn't touch on until about seven songs in when they played "Your Protector." A slowed-down version of "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" was nearly drowned out by chatter, but "White Winter Hymnal" and "Ragged Wood" sent a small spark through the audience. "Montezuma," which Pecknold played mostly by himself, was a show-stopper, proving to be more powerful than most of the songs that featured the entire band. The band ended the regular set with a soaring version of "Blue Ridge Mountains," and returned for a rousing encore of "Oliver James" and the incredible "Helplessness Blues."

In the end, a lesson was learned: When trying to accommodate this many people with such intimate, delicate music, venue selection is crucial. And, on this night, what could've been a beautiful show in a huge rock hall instead made Fleet Foxes' incredible set seem distant. And even a little boring at times, too.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: I am a huge Fleet Foxes fan. I came into this show expecting to be moved by the band's performance, but instead I found myself straining to make out the guitar parts clearly.

Random Note: I wonder how many of those neon test tube shots were sold at the show last night. Also: Do folksy hipster types do jello shots? Discuss.

By The Way: I got to the venue in time to see Cave Singers play a few songs. People nodded along to their Delta blues songs, but it was clear everyone was just biding their time before the main event.

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Daniel Hopkins
Contact: Daniel Hopkins

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