Concert Review: Fleet Foxes at The Orpheum, Boston, May 17, 2011

here are very few things that drive me crazier than “I saw [FILL IN THE BLANK] live and they sounded just like the record!” I usually simply smile in response, albeit in a tight-lipped way. I’d really like to say: “Then why jam yourself into a disgusting old firetrap theatre that hasn’t been renovated since Jesus was a boy, knees around your throat and sweat dripping down your spine, when you could just sit at home comfortably and hear the same music?” But then I’d like to keep my friends.

Classic crappy cellphone picture of Fleet Foxes live

But I have to admit that my big question before seeing Fleet Foxes was “Will they sound like the recordings?” Because I seriously questioned whether they’d be able to pull off those gorgeous harmonies in a live setting. With all the studio gimmickry these days, I almost expect vocalists to sound worse live, a little off-key or strained on certain notes. So I let out a huge sigh of relief when the background “oh’s” dropped in beautifully during opener “Grown Ocean.” Yes, they can sing the harmonies live, and Robin Pecknold’s voice soars and holds.

They made the relatively risky choice of opening with four songs from Helplessness Blues, out for less than a month. (Don’t hold me 100% to this recollection: I didn’t write the setlist down.) But the audience was so engaged and excited (almost too much so) that they could have played a collection of Norwegian carpenter songs and gotten away with it. The only issue with these newer songs is that there’s a greater range of dynamics than in some of the older material and whoever was manning the mixing board lacked the subtle touch necessary. The bass drum made my heart vibrate uncomfortably and throughout the concert there was a little too much humming and residual feedback. Unfortunately this took some of the steam out of “Bedouin Dress” and a couple of other earlier songs.

They really caught their stride on the material from their debut, the subtlety and beauty of the lyrics and instrumentation really coming through. “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” were both spectacular. And this seemed to kick up the new songs a notch for later in the show. “Montezuma” was exquisite as was “The Cascades” and “Helplessness Blues.”

With six musicians, including incredible multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, the sounds was wide-ranging and somewhat locked down – hard to improvise with these arrangements, I suspect – but still fresh and exciting. I have a feeling that these guys are going to become much bigger in the next couple of years.

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