Rarely does a music venue match a band’s aesthetic as well as it did Saturday night when the alter boy-folk revivalists known as Fleet Foxes played an al fresco show at Berkeley’s Greek Theater. Strawberry Canyon in the Berkeley hills is exactly the type of place that inspired the band’s most recent album, the ridiculously successful Helplessness Blues, where the wonder of wilderness interacts with a generation coming of age (the venue is adjacent to the UC Berkeley campus). Bandleader/singer/guitarist Robin Pecknold has actually said in interviews that the album was meant to evoke the woodsy, bucolic places that characterize the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and it made even more sense when their songs were heard with outdoor acoustics. All that was missing was the campfire.
That these guys were even playing the Greek is still a bit hard to wrap the head around. In 2008, the band was booking bar-sized venues like Bottom of the Hill. They played the Fox Theater in Oakland earlier this year, the week after the release of Helplessness Blues, and they basically played the same set from that show, mixing HB cuts with songs from their self-titled debut LP. At the Fox, the new material had yet to marinate enough for that audience to really sink its teeth into the set, but by now fans have engaged with the record. And on this night, they were hanging on the band’s every note.
So why the intense captivation? Why did it seem there was nary a whisper from the crowd between and during songs? Part of why I am so captivated by this band goes beyond the baroque vocal harmonies and sweeping arrangements that are used as quick reference points to define the band. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious prick, the allure has more to do with the existential nature of their songs, and the contemplation of the natural world as an essential part of our development as people. They’re… like… deep, man.
And then there was Pecknold’s take: “This music is fueled by hate,” he said toward the end of the set, maybe just a bit sarcastically.
Pecknold and drummer J. Tillman were somewhat game for bantering with the crowd, making off-handed references to Citizen Kane when they were describing the Greek (and its similarity to the venue where that movie’s opera singer performed), and addressing the general aroma of the place — “It smells great here,” he said coyly. “Is that eucalyptus? Humboldt’s finest?” (And, sure enough, their background visuals catered to those among us more, um, willing to indulge in a little psychedelia).
They’ve become marginally more comfortable playing in front of larger crowds over the last two years, but the bandmembers’ stage presence is decidedly understated — hyper-chill, if you will. Live, their sound demands such egalitarian personalities, each ingredient of the sonic dish equally pronounced. And, to that end, they sounded remarkably record-like on this night, which perhaps speaks more to the richness of their album than to their live performance.
—“Grown Ocean,” in which the brilliant obscurity of a dream is juxtaposed with the wonder of adolescence, and J. Tillman’s pulsing bass drum reveals a rare moment of urgency in the band’s discography. Generally, the busier Tillman is, the better.
—“Sim Sala Bin,” Pecknold’s vaguely exotic finger-picking winding through clusters of sonic drama, before switching to an Americana-era Led Zeppelin-esque breakdown.
—“Battery Kinzie,” another example of Tillman’s ability to turn simple ideas into complex percussion arrangements.
—“Helplessness Blues,” which they closed with, perhaps predictably, but ever so poignantly. This could be their defining song to date, an overwhelmingly personal yet generation-encapsulating account that accomplishes as much with its major chords as it does with its notions of hope and love and romantic ideas of the simple, satisfying life.
Opening the night was The Walkmen, who came onstage looking like they had just come from a wedding, matched as groomsmen. The veteran East Coast indie outfit played a number of new songs, alternating between awkward lullabies and more traditional rocking numbers. Thumbs up, all around.