To Die By Your Side

Fleet Foxes – Wolverhampton Civic Hall 25/06/2009

June 27th, 2009

What a difference a day makes. Or does it? 24 hours earlier, I was stood right of the stage in the sweltering heat of the Wolverhampton Civic Hall. Tonight, I’m stood right of the stage in the sweltering heat of the Wolverhampton Civic Hall. While it’s not fair to compare and contrast two vastly different bands, two gigs in two consecutive nights makes it near impossible not to. The band walks on stage. “Hello… we’re Blur.” Okay, this is just plain weird. Either I’m experiencing a major case of déjà-vu or Robin Pecknold is well aware of what went down the previous night. And as introductions go, it’s a damn good ice breaker. It’s also just the first of many unexpected and slightly surreal happenings that tonight’s Fleet Foxes show brings.

Not that the music is a surprise. A stunning, acapella ‘Sun Giant’ opens the show. Robin Pecknold breaking the silence between the lines, with a light time keeping rap on the body of his guitar. The crisp, clear sound of the most gorgeous harmonies ringing out around the hall. The power and precision of the voices amplified by the reverential silence that’s fallen across the crowd. Not that it lasts. Much of the evening’s delights are marred by talkers and drunks. An unlikely mix scattered amongst the people who really are here to watch, listen to, enjoy and admire the music on show. The buzz and murmur of conversation blighting the quieter, softer, gentler moments of the set. It is, to say the least, incredibly and utterly irritating.

But as distracting as it undeniably is, it doesn’t completely ruin the night. It can’t when the music is this good. Sounding more organic and less rigid than on record, Fleet Foxes are loose and free with their songs. Creating lots of space within them in which to work their instruments. The vocals are flawless all night. Robin Pecknold’s voice note perfect. Stronger and more forceful than you’d expect but equally as moving. The guitar play wonderfully fluid, while the drums seem to take on more of an improvised feel to them. The band plays heavier and rockier in parts but lose none of the beauty of their music. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is simply stunningly spiritual. Its baroque choral beginnings exploding into a rush of folk country that simply leaves you spinning. The highlight though are the two solo Pecknold spots. Seeming to grow in stature, alone he commands your attention. Part 60s troubadour, part woodsman, he delivers a time stopping rendition of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’.

But like I said, the music is no big surprise. With an accomplished EP and album under their belt, this was always going to be something special. And the handful of new songs that sprinkle the set look set to continue the musical wonderment. One is a picked acoustic number that easily slots into the Fleet Foxes canon. Another ventures towards slightly more experimental territory, suggesting Fleet Foxes future may edge in a similar direction to that of Grandaddy. What wasn’t expected was how much of a showman Pecknold would be. Between songs he is chatty and witty, an unexpectedly natural frontman. He introduces long moments of tuning as new songs and treats us to an uncanny impression of Johnny Cash covering The Killers’ ‘Human’. It is in turns hilarious and quite, quite surreal. But not as surreal as the news that arrived just as the rest of the band returned for the final song.

Some remember where they were when JFK was shot. Others remember where they heard of Elvis’ death. Everyone in the Civic Hall is sure to remember where they were when Michael Jackson died. The news that shook the world is shouted out from the balconies. Michael Jackson is dead. It seems to wrong foot the band, the audience and the entire night. Uncertainty takes hold. Is it a joke. The truth. A hoax. Someone ask for verification. Then Robin sums it up with a soft, ”If it’s true, that’s really sad” and dedicates the final song ‘Blue Ridge Mountain’ to Michael Jackson. It’s an oddly fitting tribute, one which makes for an unsettling end to a strange night. A night that still managed to be special, despite the attempts of certain ‘fans’ within the crowd.

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