Over the past four years, Fleet Foxes’ music has risen to a level of commercial viability that few modern folk artists achieve. As beat-based hip-hop and electronic music stands as the sonic order of the day, these bearded bards from the Northwest seem to be flaunting convention and scoring album hits with an old-fashioned sense of craftsmanship. Conventional wisdom, and the music press in general, encourages us to think of Fleet Foxes as the underdog indie-rock story of the moment. Seeing the band live proves otherwise — revealing a seasoned, undeniably professional collective of musicians.
Much of the band’s acclaim is directed at lead singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold, and rightfully so. His luminous, reedy tenor lifted the group’s Wednesday performance at the Greek into the ether, lending emotion to each subtle turn of phrase. Opening with the slow-building new cut “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” Fleet Foxes quickly galvanized and hushed the expectant audience. The theatre filled with an atmospheric warmth and stillness that was intermittently interrupted by percussive bursts and screams from the crowd. As Pecknold launched into the opening strains of 2008 standout “Mykonos,” the audience finally got its chance to move, reacting wildly to the song’s half-time, harmony-laden finale.
As the evening progressed, a slew of older tunes including “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood” and “English House” drew rapturous receptions. It has been said many times, but Fleet Foxes’ vocal harmonies in the live setting are truly something to behold. Not only are the parts executed with precision, but more importantly, with great emotion. Each singer seems to take an opportunity for harmonic counterpoint as a chance to express himself as a vocal soloist in his own right. This sense of supportive duty is exemplified by drummer and solo-artist J. Tillman, who adds a density to his vocal arrangements that complements Pecknold perfectly.
The band’s newest album “Helplessness Blues” retreads a lot of the musical ground covered on its self-titled debut, but with a notable emphasis on introspection. Live, the newer compositions blended into one another, while the older tracks seemed to burst forth with a pop-informed sense of rhythm and melody.
During the encore, Pecknold performed a solo version of the recently-composed ballad “I Let You,” after which the group rejoined him for a blistering, set-capping trilogy of “Sun It Rises,” “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Helplessness Blues.” As the latter gained momentum, Pecknold’s lyrics of self-sacrifice and physical subordination began to strike poignantly. Left alone for a moment towards the end of the tune, strumming and singing, Pecknold intoned: “someday I’ll be like the man on the screen,” as his image stretched across the massive theatre projection monitors. The lyric hung in the air and the band crescendoed with a rattle and swell — the irony and elegance of the statement not lost on the audience.