By Lee Cole–
They came out in a blur of flannels, hippie beards, mandolins and acoustic guitars. If you had never heard them, you might have expected standard, run of the mill folk music or bluegrass. Instead, what erupts from the speakers are reverb filled vocal harmonies, sounding ethereal and ghostly over intricate fingerpicking parts and a thudding bass drum. The listener is transported to another place altogether. Their backdrop screen behind the stage shows shifting mandalas and Native American patterns and symbols, and coupled with the music, gives the feel of being in a wintry pine forest, enchanted with some ancient Native American magic. The group on the stage was of course the Seattle folk band Fleet Foxes, who gave an awe inspiring concert at the Louisville Palace on Oct. 5.
Known for combining hard driving folk rock with multi-part Beach Boys-esque harmonies and arcane lyrics, Fleet Foxes have become indie gods since the release of their self-titled album in 2008, and it’s easy to understand why. Their songs are undeniably catchy, and not in the superficial way a Rihanna song is catchy. You get the sense when listening to them that what you’re hearing is something of real value and importance – something beyond the flavor of the week. With the release of their second album, “Helplessness Blues” in 2011, Fleet Foxes secured their place among the best bands recording and performing today, alongside Arcade Fire and Wilco. Given their exploding popularity, especially among college students, the air of excitement outside the Palace and within the lobby was unmistakable.
The opening act, Van Dyke Parks, cowriter of the Beach Boys album “Smile” and a great songwriter in his own right, gave an understated but nonetheless gripping performance.
Fleet Foxes lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold said once on stage, “if you were to ask me what my favorite album was today, I would probably say ‘Song Cycle’ by Van Dyke Parks. If you ask me tomorrow, I might say ‘Smile’ by the Beach Boys.” Aside from his brief tribute to Parks, Pecknold and his band mates spoke very little. The songs flowed seamlessly into one another, much like on the albums. Because of this, there was a constant exchange of instruments and parts on stage, making the performance high energy and apparently exhausting for the group. Occasionally, Pecknold would have to stop to drink what looked like hot green tea, probably with honey, for his voice on songs with difficult vocal parts.
The venue complimented the performance well. The interior of the Palace, which looks like a cross between a Greek temple and a brightly colored carnival, was strangely appropriate for the music, which itself has both a rustic feel and a certain colorful vivacity. There were several memorable moments throughout the performance and as the show progressed, the crowd seemed to collectively fall into a state of awestruck glee. “I can’t believe how good this is,” said one spectator. It was clear that these songs meant more than the average cookie-cutter pop song. The band had the audience up and stomping their feet with “Ragged Wood,” and “Heard Them Stirring.” The excitement reached a climax with “White Winter Hymnal.” Pecknold sang the famous opening line (“I was following the I was following the I was following” and so on) and as the harmony parts built, the vocals could hardly be heard over the crowd singing along. The best moment may have been their performance of “Helplessness Blues,” as the last song of their encore. With its poignant lyrics and hard-driving finish, it was a perfect way to close an unforgettable evening with the Foxes.
Photos: Lee Cole/The Louisville Cardinal