Six friendly-looking camp counselors, more bearded than not, amble onstage Saturday evening at the Williamsburg Waterfront, get situated with their guitars and other mountain-man instruments (mandolins, etc.), and begin building a wind tunnel of harmonies — wasting no time proving to the thousands of people before them that they can make it sound just as good live as they can in a studio. What’s to follow during the next two hours is mild-mannered compared to what’s going on across the river. Here at the waterfront, the lead singer will drink tea, there will be slow-moving aerial projections of snow-capped mountains, gushy remarks about how great The Walkmen were during their opening set, and the band’s self-deprecating shouts to a crowd on a nearby high-rise balcony, begging them to look in our direction. Over there, at the Fucked Up show, girls are lined up for hours in hopes of an up-close glimpse of Wavves, a shirtless lead singer will belly slap the front row as he to strains to scream about death and resurrection, and maybe one or two pairs of eyeglasses will be smashed in a mosh pit.
Fleet Foxes are up there now with the ubiquitous Death Cab for Cuties and Bright Eyes of the world. For the most part, saying “I like indie rock” is saying you like them — thanks to a second helping of inoffensive, wholly pleasant songs (sans one squeaky sax solo) on what is maybe the year’s most beautiful album. This is the band’s greatest accomplishment, but, for those who have prided themselves on moving beyond the earnest, NPR-priased acoustic peddlers who used to define a large portion of “indie,” it’s their biggest flaw. See them live, though.
Their show this weekend took on a different dimension, not just re-creating the warm, earthy tones and piled-on harmonies of their albums, but adding a mystical, almost hypnotizing element to them. The random billows of smoke onstage probably helped, as did the star-filled skies projected behind them, but not as much as J. Tillman’s Indian-ritual kick drum, echoey but slightly muted as if not to disturb the spirits. The band played up their soft-loud dynamics, letting Robin Pecknold’s sweet, gentle voice steal at least some portion of a song before or after joining him on piano, upright bass and the lot. The so, so quiet “Blue Spotted Tail” emphasized those numbers swallowed up by sound, and the blooming notes of “Helplessness Blues” made its hushed moments that much more arresting. And don’t get me started on the soul-stirring “White Winter Hymnal” turned jubilant “Ragged Wood.”
There is a striking authenticity to what Fleet Foxes are doing up there. It’s something so un-savvy, so un-opportunistic in the face of current trends, yet infused with worldliness and refinedness. That’s not even acknowledging the amount of work and dedication that goes into nailing those vocals in a live setting. Maybe the “indie masses” don’t have dull taste; maybe Fleet Foxes are just deserving of their attention.
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury