w/The Cave Singers
Tabernacle (Atlanta, GA)
May 14, 2011
Waiting in a queue that wrapped around a city block, I caught wind of an exchange between a couple of passing women. "What is this for," asked one. "Um, the Fleet...Foxes or something?" "Who the hell is that?" And off into the night they went, none the wiser. Those of us who heard the women laughed, but of course it's a valid question for the layperson. Why is this band causing such a kerfuffle? Sure, I could preach to her about their unimpeachable debut, or the sterling follow-up still hot off the presses, the storied live prowess that beckoned us from five hours away. But she'd probably just ask if they were on the radio, shrug, and remain unimpressed.
It is sort of remarkable that the Fleet Foxes are already on the shortlist of indie music elites. Yes, they've crammed an astounding volume of quality material into only two LPs and an EP (even their self-titled and -released first EP, though crude by comparison, has some jaw-dropping moments.) But they aren't not a niche act, which is why their relentless assent is at least a minor surprise. Who'd have thought medieval woodland folk was what the world was pining for? Whatever the case, the Fleets were out on their first tour in over a year, and those of us who know who the hell they are couldn't be happier.
This wouldn't mark my first Fleet Foxes experience. In fact, the other time I saw them was also in Atlanta. Back in 2008, I enjoyed Tom Waits and the Fleet Foxes on the same night (this will probably be in my obituary.) Unfortunately, bad directions caused me to miss half the Fleet Foxes gig. But it was a treat to see the band in a venue the size of a shoebox, especially with the assumption that they'd be filling significantly larger venues in no time.
Indeed, the show at the Tabernacle was sold out. I'd been to the venue twice before: once for Ryan Adams in 2004 (back with the then-newly minted Cardinals) and again to see the Decemberists in 2006. We entered the venue and I staked a spot in the merch line. Ten minutes of waiting was not rewarded, however, as the shirts were underwhelming. Take note: this would mark the end of the night's disappointments.
We claimed a patch of floor a tad right of center-stage, six or seven heads back. The venue is a cavernous space, a former church (obviously) with an immense pipe organ that spans the high wall behind the stage. Two tiers of balconies wrap around the other three walls. Tall windows are obscured by heavy black drapes. The floor tilts downward towards the stage in an effort to diminish obstructions (it wasn't foolproof, but it helped.) There wasn't much elbow room by the time openers The Cave Singers took the stage.
A trio that rose from the ashes of Pretty Girls Make Graves, the band ran through a set comprised of charged blues stomps. The mix wasn't great on frontman Pete Quirk's vocals, but his voice and stage presence was powerful and expressive enough to keep you interested. If nothing else they piqued my interest, and I'll explore them when I get the chance. But, my priorities laid elsewhere, and I found myself eager for the trio to make way for the Foxes.
The Fleet Foxes' team of beardo-roadies wandered the stage, tweaking this and tightening that. The audience went up in a singular roar when lead singer Robin Pecknold emerged from backstage. He smiled and sheepishly waved, at one point motioning for calm, which we eventually did. For five minutes he stood among the bustling crew, playing guitar and singing along with the house music. The mic was muted, but I assume the sound guy had the signal in his headphones. Had Robin missed soundcheck? Was he just getting comfortable out on stage? Who knows, but it was a telling situation. Robin Pecknold is clearly not concerned with developing a mystique. More on that later.
Robin during soundcheck.
When all was kosher, the stage party retreated. A few excruciating minutes later, the houselights fell. The crowd exploded, and topped that when the band stepped out. Never in my days of attending live music have I seen a standing ovation occur before the first song. Robin tried to greet us, but it was no use. The roar overtook his mic, so the band stepped back and gazed around the place, grinning while the reception lingered on for the better part of two minutes. Finally, Robin thanked us, thanked the openers, and the band played.
When I go to shows, I'm always looking for "The Song of the Night." Generally speaking, I'm decisive in this endeavor, but it was a legitimate challenge on Saturday. I'd wager about 75% of songs were contenders. Hell, I still don't know what was best. Was it the sequence of "White Winter Hymnal" into "Ragged Wood"? Was it the main-set closing "Blue Ridge Mountains"? Surely the opener can't be the best song, can it? But instrumental "Cascades" into "Grown Ocean" out of the gates certainly challenges that theory. The crowd bellowed the words of the mighty "Mykonos", doing their best to keep up with the band's complex harmonic interplay. You could have heard a mouse sneeze during "Blue Spotted Tail"--any rowdy gabbers were brought to a hush by Robin's delicate recitation of the Helplessness Blues standout.
Speaking of young squire Robin, what a charming performer. I was struck by his lack of self-imposed stoicism while onstage. During the songs, he was a consummate professional, never missed a note, and the passion he pours into his singing and playing steams out of his every pore. But between songs? Just a dude. No better way to put it. His smiley demeanor was more reminiscent of a college sophomore playing a house-show than a globally celebrated songwriting tour-de-force. Put yourself in his situation: You're 25 years old, and well into your gestation period as an icon. You could play the rockstar, act mysterious, dress in an eccentric manner. But Pecknold seems uninterested in all that. He had an "aw, shucks" casual air about him. He dressed in plainclothes--unpressed khakis and a button-down. His demeanor was one of shy appreciation, even amusement. He was never awkward, but a bit of a shrinking lily at times. And all the while, he was never without a boyish grin.
Drummer J. Tillman (who is an established solo artist and released a favorite of mine last year) afforded us a bit of comic relief, making light of the crowd frenzy by suggesting the band introduce a laser show and T-shirt cannon to the act. And in a moment of regional appreciation, Tillman led us all (via a thumping floor tom) in the Atlanta Braves' Tomahawk Chop chorus. I may or may not have waved my Braves cap like a maniac. (Note: Earlier in the day, we were at Turner Field witnessing the Braves knock off the hated Phillies. Go Braves!)
The band encored with two songs--Robin came out solo to do "Oliver James", and the band joined him for a rousing finale in "Helplessness Blues". Speaking to the latter, it was impressive how big a response new material received. Never mind that the record only officially dropped a few days earlier; I never once sensed that the audience was clamoring for the "old stuff". Whatever they offered was greeted with untempered celebration.
The band was done before 11:00, which was nice for those of us with a two-hour drive ahead. The night was nothing short of a triumph. I've never been part of an audience with such a feverish mania for the artist--it's an exaggeration to compare it to the Beatles at Shea, but given the context of time, scope and genre, it was a similarly passionate atmosphere. It's clear that the Fleet Foxes are destined for greater things, but will the boundaries of their loosely-defined niche prevent them from achieving a greater appeal? I highly doubt it. Again, the niche is loosely defined in the first place, and it's all but become a genre unto itself--a trend that will only perpetuate as the band continues to mature. As I said in the Helplessness Blues review, this will be one fun band to have on the scene for as long as they keep at it.
Setlist and phone-quality pics:
Drops In The River
Sim Sala Bim
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
White Winter Hymnal
He Doesn't Know Why
The Shrine / An Argument
Blue Spotted Tail
Blue Ridge Mountains
Atlanta Braves Tomahawk Chant (J. Tillman)