12 Jan 2018

Gig review: Fleet Foxes

12:35 pm on 12 January 2018

Fleeting genius.


Robin Pecknold (right) of Fleet Foxes.

Robin Pecknold (right) of Fleet Foxes. Photo: Flickr/Gerry Cassidy Strabane

About halfway through Fleet Foxes’ set at Wellington’s Opera House, my friend and I were told to stop singing.

The Seattle band has been world-touring its third album “Crack-Up”, recorded without former drummer Josh Tillman (now known as Father John Misty), since November. On Tuesday they played Auckland’s Powerstation, and yesterday Wellington’s Opera House.

The venue was changed at late notice from the Michael Fowler Centre concert hall, and as the six-piece band shuffled onto the stage and launched into the first two songs from ‘Crack-Up”, I worried the shift wouldn’t pay off. The sound was jarring and dissonant and far removed from the crispness and warmth of the band’s previous stop in New Zealand six years ago.

A friend of a friend had seen Fleet Foxes in Vancouver a few months ago and told us lead singer and total dreamboat Robin Pecknold had deprecated “Crack-Up” and said he preferred playing the band’s older songs. The next four on the setlist, beginning with classic "Grown Ocean", were a lot more fun.

Still, there was something missing.

The last gig I’d sat all the way through was Norah Jones. For Norah Jones, it made sense to sit still and admire, but at Fleet Foxes I found myself awkwardly dancing in my seat and trying to get some good vibes going, but the complete lack of energy from the inert crowd of mostly 30 or 40-somethings sucked me back into my seat.

That’s not to say Fleet Foxes have a repertoire of club-worthy anthems, but they hardly deserve an audience that wouldn’t have looked out of place knowingly nodding at paintings at an art gallery.

The fact the band didn’t look like they were having fun touring their new material didn’t help. Pecknold only spoke once or twice, making endearingly mumbling jokes.

“Fool’s Errand” might be the closest the new album has to a standout singalong, and so when the pounding guitars started, as we had done for "White Winter Hymnal" and "Your Protector", my friend and I sang.

We didn’t sing in an obnoxious way. We were too aware of our lack of tune for that. Yet a joyless stern warning came from a middle-aged woman to our left: “Please stop singing.”

After the gig, we boastingly debated what we should have told her. “I was this close to telling her to fuck off,” I said.

But at the time we just shrunk back and quietly nodded our heads. We were shook.

At Lorde’s recent gig at the Michael Fowler Centre, there was standing and dancing and singing. Fleet Foxes aren’t Lorde, but I did wonder again what might have been.

The band’s older hits kept coming (they played only seven from "Crack-Up") - "Blue Ridge Mountains", "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", "Mykonos" and "Battery Kinzie" - and after two-ish hours they left the stage.

Sound has rarely been an issue at the Opera House. In fact, shows like November’s “Saturday Night Fever” have been moved there because of its acoustics. Last night’s set did improve, but it was only when Pecknold strummed "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Oliver James" alone that his artistry shone.

Fleet Foxes are one of my favourite bands and I liked “Crack-Up” and its bigger, evolved orchestral sound. And it’s not often one of my favourite bands turns up on my doorstep.

But as I (finally) stood and clapped and wooed for an encore, I couldn’t help feel disappointed. I wasn’t smiling, I just wanted them to play “Helplessness Blues”.

Pecknold and his talented friends are renowned for playing incredible shows. I wasn’t at the Auckland Town Hall six years ago when they played. I had just been told they had sounded crisp and warm.

They returned for three more songs and ended with “Helplessness Blues”. I have cried listening to “Helplessness Blues” and would have paid the $100 price for the song alone. I sang loudly (screw that woman), but didn’t cry.

As the final note echoed in the theatre, Pecknold said his thank yous, clasped his hands together and bowed a few times. Behind him, a band member sheepishly did a slow motion reverse robot off the stage.

He didn’t have fun and I didn’t either.