Tuesday night is not a traditional night for a church service, and the Hi-Tone café doesn’t resemble any church I’ve been in. But on an otherwise insignificant evening in the middle of March, the modest bar with a stage was turned into an ancient cathedral complete with towering spires, candles, and stained glass. This tiny venue in the buckle of the Bible belt was transformed, and its inhabitants transfixed, by the power and mystery of the haunting harmonies of Fleet Foxes.
With tornado warnings in the surrounding area hampering the already severely lackadaisical attitude that permeates most of Memphis nightlife, the crowd shuffled in late. They staggered in profoundly unaware that for eight dollars they had just stepped back in time into a hallowed chamber, a world where raw emotion and unbridled passion for love and life are celebrated with song; a world that seems both agelessly familiar and refreshingly new.
The doors opened at 9pm, and when my wife and I arrived at about 9:30pm, Fleet Foxes, who were opening up for labelmates Blitzen Trapper, had already set up and were apparently ready to go. Not wanting to keep our 17-year-old babysitter out much later than midnight on a school night, we interpreted this as a good sign.
Then we began to wait. Over the next two hours, while we waited either for more people to arrive or for a late sound hand to finally show up (or a combination of the two), we killed time by chatting with other fans and the lead singer of Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold.
Pecknold is a lot like Fleet Foxes’ music — warm, peaceful, and inviting. During our smattering of random conversations, we talked about what the group was listening to in its van right now (which Robin drives himself), in addition to band names, Seattle, and the unfortunate comparisons to other bands that people invariably make wherever they go. When asked about his band’s name (the Fleet Foxes were formerly known as the Pineapples before the original Pineapples — a NY punk outfit — threatened a lawsuit), Robin said he liked the word “fleet” as an adjective and “foxes” for the phrases commonly associated with that animal, as in ‘crazy like a fox,’ ‘sly like a fox,’ etc. However, he was quick to add that a name is just a name (hence the Pineapples decision), and that it really has nothing to do with the music. Amen.
When Fleet Foxes finally took the stage after 11pm, Pecknold and his longtime friend Christian Wargo lifted their voices high above the clattering of beer bottles and bar chatter. Immediately all else was silenced. Their voices rose up as if being resurrected from a long, deep sleep, and echoed out through the tiny bar-turned-sanctuary, mesmerizing the crowd. With that brief a cappella introduction, the gospel according to Fleet Foxes began to unfold.
Throughout their 45-minute set the band floated seamlessly through much of debut EP Sun Giant, in addition to previewing songs from their forthcoming full-length. The air immediately filled with warmth, conjuring up images of campfires and Christmas trees, ghosts and sun streaks. The faithful quintet broke ranks only for a brief interlude to allow Pecknold, perched on a bar-stool pedestal, to preach the haunting tale of Oliver James. During this disturbingly intimate tale about a baby being pulled from the banks of a river, a grandfather’s kitchen table, and anxious love, Pecknold once again showed a delicate mastery to his craft that ridiculously belies his 21 years.
Fleet Foxes primarily construct ethereal folk-rock songs with a timeless quality that has enticed more than one reviewer to draw hasty comparisons to My Morning Jacket, as well as to their labelmates Band of Horses. These comparisons are shallow and ultimately inaccurate. The intimacy and the lush harmonies, coupled with the rhythmic patterns built upon in their more accomplished work, like “Drops in the River” and “English House”, should not be so easily categorized or effortlessly dismissed.
The other-worldliness that Fleet Foxes create is not easy to characterize or put into that elusive comparison box. Much of their work seems to exist, like so many other timeless songs, in a space that does not age. It could just as easily have been fashioned 100 years ago near a whiskey still in the Appalachian Mountains as in some basement in the Seattle metro area in 2008. Fortunate for us, it’s being fashioned right now, live, right in front of us.