Fleet Foxes at the United Palace

Matthew Shelter on May 26, 2011

Fleet Foxes
United Palace Theater
New York, NY
May 19

Success does not rest easy on Robin Pecknold’s shoulders. The new album was a struggle to complete. He doesn’t love the rigors of touring. He doesn’t like people paying too much attention to everything he says. He doesn’t like to be misquoted – doesn’t even love being quoted correctly. It’s mid-May, and the weather still sucks in New York City – it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s raining.

But on stage at the United Palace Theater last Thursday night, the second of two sold-out New York City dates for Fleet Foxes, all the above falls away. It’s been less than a month since the release of Helplessness Blues, the stunningly gorgeous follow-up to the band’s self-titled 2008 debut. The new album, stronger than the first, was a good two years in the making, but feels as if it were recorded over a long, dreamy month of Sundays. It is the sound of spun gold, shimmering harmonies set against Pecknold’s searching, yearning, doubting lyrics.

The band opened with the instrumental “The Cascades” before launching into a soaring version of “Grown Ocean,” one of the three touchstones that anchor Helplessness Blues (along with “Montezuma” and the title track, both of which were featured Thursday night). The 19-song set included 10 of the 12 tracks on the new album – particularly well-received was the mini-suite of “Battery Kinzie” , “Bedouin Dress” , and “Sim Sala Bim” – balanced by highlights from Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant (a 5-song EP). In live performance, Fleet Foxes’ harmonies remain pitch perfect, but the bottom of the band’s sound – Christian Wargo’s bass and, especially, Joshua Tillman’s drumming – becomes more of a presence. The guitar-laced coda that closes “Sim Sala Bim” on album became a funkier guitar and drum jam in concert.

It is hard to hard to write about Fleet Foxes without drifting into comparisons to their musical forebears, like Crosby, Stills and Nash or Simon and Garfunkel. Indeed, Pecknold acknowledged the debt from the stage Thursday night when he remarked that the band had just had a chance meeting on the streets of the city earlier that day with none other than Art Garfunkel, who told them “Hey, I heard you’ve been copying my style” – an anecdote met with much laughter in the theater.

A 1930’s movie palace that has been restored as an urban church (of all things), the 3,293-seat United Palace Theater has become a venue of choice in the city for acts ranging from Van Morrison and Bob Dylan to Monsters of Folk and Vampire Weekend. The décor is all red velvet and gold gilt; the sound is crystalline clear and opera-house full.

Fellow Seattle-based band the Cave Singers opened with an energetic, well-received 35-minute set.