There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved in watching Fleet Foxes perform at a rock club, because they aren't, in any true sense, a rock band, folk-, psychedelic-, or otherwise. They use the tools of the trade: guitars, keyboard, drums, bass. But their music is utterly euphonic--everything about their sound is crystalline and precisely beautiful. There isn't a mote of ugly anywhere; no slightly off melodies or purposely dirty guitar playing. And like it or not, rock 'n roll needs ugly. Even Bon Iver, a band that is sonically and philosophically very similar to Fleet Foxes, purposely injects disruptive messiness into its music, thereby keeping one toe firmly in the realm of rock.
Following the utterly forgettable but pleasant herb-rock of openers Dungen, the quintet opened with the liquid four-part harmony that is the band's strongest feature, and the plexiglass windows of the upper-level bar vibrated sympathetically. It was the most powerful moment of the concert, as waves of braided tone washed over the crowd.
The band is clearly composed of hardcore music nerds--after the opening tune, which to this critic's ear sounded spot-on, there was a five-minute flurry of dissatisfied soundboard adjusting. But during the break, the band proved relaxed and capable entertainers, charming the crowd with an anecdote about being spotted in Times Square by someone who said "Look, it's the Jonas Brothers in 15 years."
Fleet Foxes made few changes in arrangement for the show, and its members, while charismatic, lack overt showmanship, so it almost seemed as if we had been treated to watching a live recording session. It's difficult to say whether this is a strength or a weakness. On one hand, it's easy to close your eyes and imagine being back in your living room, spinning the disk and saving $22. On the other hand, it's rewarding to watch the physical processes that went into producing that album.
Unfortunately, one of the notable exceptions to this theme fell flat. The best track of their self-titled album, "White Winter Hymnal," was disappointing live specifically because the band rearranged it, kicking the tempo up, flattened the structure, and introduced a boppier beat. It defeated the tune's greatest strength: simplicity. With its single-sentence lyrics and round structure, "Hymnal" is two minutes twenty-five seconds of musical heaven in its recorded form. Live, it was just a song.
After a lengthy set, including a couple of solo performances by frontman Robin Pecknold, the band called the members of Dungen onstage to grab tambourines and maracas, celebrating their stint touring together (tonight was their last show sharing a stage) with a raucous exit that seemed both a fitting end, and an odd contrast to, the rest of the show. The noisy, jeans-clad crowd filtered out, satisfied.