The Fleet Foxes didn't pull any punches during their two-hour performance at the Fillmore Auditorium on Thursday night. The sextet's set featured dizzying turns of instrumental skill, carefully layered compositions and fast-paced rhythmic stretches.
The most hypnotic and compelling moments of the evening, however, came in the band's signature brand of vocals -- the hypnotic harmonies shared between frontman Robin Pecknold and bandmates Christian Wargo, Casey Wescott and Josh Tillman. The group's uncanny vocal blend alternated between eerie and evocative, bright and dark, inspiring and unsettling. Fleet Foxes' vocal prowess seemed all the more affecting in a live setting; it gave the group's baroque approach to instrumentation its real heart.
The Fleet Foxes didn't waste much time with introductions or niceties at the beginning of their set. The outfit immediately launched into "The Cascades," the ambitious, epic instrumental from their latest release, Helplessness Blues. The tune's blend of mandolin lines, chords spelled out on the electric guitar by Skyler Skjelset and Morgan Henderson's bowed tones on the stand-up bass gave the set an immediately grandiose feel. When Pecknold started singing wordless vocal lines on top of the dense instrumentation, he previewed what would be the most powerful component of the evening.
As the band segued seamlessly into "Grown Ocean" and "Drops In the River," the haunting, multi-layered harmonies started to emerge. With Pecknold's tenor in the fore, Wargo, Tillman and Wescott swapped roles as vocal collaborators. Thanks to a well-balanced sound mix, the contours of each band member's voice helped complement Pecknold's lead.
Almost immediately, Henderson proved an able multi-instrumentalist, taking turns on stand-up bass, flute, guitar, clarinet and, later, saxophone. The large range of instruments added a deeper dimension to the rest of the band's acoustic-heavy sound mix. The dense harmonies and creative instrumentation continued through a suite of songs from Helplessness Blues, a series that included "Battery Kinzie," "Bedouin Dress" and "Sim Sala Bim."
The capacity crowd started to respond in earnest when the group turned to songs from its EP Sun Giant and its self-titled LP, cheering wildly at the first strains of "Mykonos." Measured and meditative renditions of "Your Protector" and "White Winter Hymnal" only upped the energy in the room, as the harmonies started to find a complement in massive sing-alongs from the crowd.
The effect became downright eerie during a stretch of "He Doesn't Know Why," as the vocal blends reached their densest, most mind-boggling point and the house lights went up on the audience. The instrumentation cut to a minimum, and as the group sang the lines, "There's nothing I can do," they had the coordinated chants of the Fillmore audience as their backup.
Pecknold managed to find spaces to spotlight his prowess as a solo singer as well, taking solo stretches in tunes like "Your Protector" and "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song." His earnest vocals stood on their own, especially during minimalistic songs like "Blue Spotted Tail" and "Oliver James" that showed off finger-picking skills.
Still, the most engaging and affecting moments of the night came when all six members fired on all their separate cylinders. The simplistic, syncopated finger-picking pattern from Pecknold during the beginning of "The Shrine/An Argument" was a mere preface, as the tune from Helplessness Blues slowly morphed into an epic acoustic statement. The group's harmonies were at their high point, and the impact was unsettling in its sheer scope.
The band offered a similarly ambitious effect during the final tune of the evening, "Helplessness Blues." Fleet Foxes had spent nearly two hours showing off its chops on instruments ranging from the mandolin to the flute. The selection of songs from the band's latest album -- with their nontraditional structures and lengths -- had neatly displayed Pecknold's increasing ambition as a songwriter. Even so, the real lure of that final tune, like the rest of the set, was in the haunting blend of human voices, the impossible marriage of complementary tones.
It was an effect made all the more powerful in person, and it was a dynamic that found a fitting introduction in Alela Diane & Wild Divine's opening act, a performance driven largely by the lead singer's blend of country-and-western-style longing and range. Backed by a quartet that included her father as lead guitarist and mandolin player, Diane offered ingredients familiar to any Fleet Foxes fan.
From the prominence of acoustic guitars to lyrics that relied heavily on rural imagery and romantic laments, certain elements of Diane's set served as an apt preview the headlining act. The band even experimented with changes in tempo and meter mid-song, sudden changes that didn't always work.
Still, Diane's distinctive vocal style and her country textures was what made the set stand out. Her tasteful use of falsetto on songs like "The Wind" took cues from country giants like Patsy Cline. Diane's sterling tones helped keep the set aloft through its slower stretches -- at her best moments, Diane's vocals were forceful and vulnerable all at once. The Wild Divine went out on a strong note with a fast-paced twangy electric guitar solo by Diane's father, Tom, during "Elijah." The force of the Wild Divine's final number was only a faint preview of the energy that was to come with the headlining act.
Personal Bias: I'd just included "Your Protector" on an emotionally significant mix CD, so the impact of seeing that tune played life was especially deep. Random Detail: Between songs early into the set, Pecknold mentioned the band had eaten dinner at Watercourse Foods. Wargo recommended the seitan buffalo wings. By The Way: Pecknold's percussive tap on his acoustic guitar during "Oliver James" quickly drew coordinated claps from the crowd.
Fleet Foxes 07/21/11 - Fillmore Auditorium Denver, CO
01. The Cascades 02. Grown Ocean 03. Drops In The River 04. Battery Kinzie 05. Bedouin Dress 06. Sim Sala Bim 07. Mykonos 08. Your Protector 09. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song 10. White Winter Hymnal 11. Ragged Wood 12. Lorelai 13. Montezuma 14. He Doesn't Know Why 15. The Shrine/An Argument 16. Blue Spotted Tail 17. Blue Ridge Mountains
18. Oliver James 19. Helplessness Blues