Do you ever go to a concert and find yourself wishing the band wouldn’t play the hits, that it would dispose of the popular classics that everyone wants to hear and unleash its most experimental, unsung material?
That’s what I found myself pining for at the Fillmore Miami Beach last night as Fleet Foxes played to a packed house. The West Coast folk-rock band released Crack-Up, its most conceptual, experimental album yet, last year, and I was dying to see what the group might do with it in a live setting.
What the band did, actually, was play an excellent show — nothing more, nothing less. Save for some beautiful thematic backgrounds — close-up shots of watercolor paints, geometric patterns, and storm clouds — there wasn’t a whole lot of artifice. The band lined up onstage and delivered a solid set heavy on the hits, with singer Robin Pecknold wearing a scraggly beard and a tan knit cap that gave him the air of a jolly stevedore.
On record, the band members excel in balancing the expansive with the intimate, sometimes placing gentle acoustic ballads next to complex, orchestral opuses. They attempted to do the same here, and mostly did very well. Their stage presence was unfussy, unpretentious, and focused solely on making their music well and weathering the many instrument changes required, from upright bass and bowed guitar to jazz flute and bass clarinet. They seemed to know just what to do to make a song more special, whether it meant changing the key, going straight into the next song to link them together, or embellishing on the original part. Pecknold did this frequently with his vocals, singing notes higher or drawing out certain ones. His voice sounded somewhat muted at times, however, and he occasionally softened at higher pitches, seemingly to save his energy for exposed, solo acoustic numbers such as “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.”
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What surprised me the most about the show was the band’s focus on older material. A good half of the set list came from their first, self-titled album, and they even included three tracks from their early EP Sun Giant. Both are the band’s most conventional releases — records of rustic pop tunes full of seasonal allusions such as “White Winter Hymnal” and the springtime celebration “Ragged Wood.” These are wonderful songs that sound as though they had been passed down from generation to generation, but they’re not nearly as interesting as the newer material.
Certainly, the introspective, ambitious songs from Crack-Up — from “On Another Ocean” to “Third of May” — were interspersed, but I thought the band could’ve done more with them. It’s one thing to play your music well; it’s another to put on a show. They came closest to doing so during “The Shrine,” where deep organ blasts and a triangular backdrop supplemented Pecknold’s contemplative lyrics, giving the scene a church-like feeling.
I loved what I got last night (I might never forget hearing “Drops in the River” live), but this is a band that can do more, that shouldn’t be afraid of being ambitious because its music deserves that kind of full treatment. Here’s hoping they go for it next time.