Caught Live: Fleet Foxes + The Bees @ HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London
On a night of mutual harmonic appreciation in the capital, opening act The Bees take to the Apollo stage with the unenviable task of keeping five thousand ardent Fleet Foxes fans happy an hour or so before the Seattle band make only their second UK headline appearance in nearly two years. Prior to tonight, your reviewer has always had the Isle of Wight natives down as a group synonymous with fathers who are unwilling to stop talking about the summer of love, or that unforgettable August spent on the surf. If nothing else, tonight's set makes it abundantly clear that this was a premature and overly-harsh judgement: far from being washed-up or solely nostalgic, they are remarkably tight and confident. What's more, Paul Butler and his cohorts prove they still know their way around a good hook, a danceable groove and (most importantly tonight) harmonies capable of filling the room. A more than satisfying warm-up, then.
After a lengthy interval – presumably to cater for the mammoth task of soundchecking not only several guitars, but also a double bass, countless mandolins and three (yup, THREE) organs, not to mention flutes, violins and a variety of percussion – Robin Pecknold and co. arrive to a euphoric reception. Under subdued lighting, beams centred on each band member giving the eerie impression of a tomb made of light, they launch into a set drawn not just from recent second album Helplessness Blues and their self-titled 2008 debut LP, but also from that same year's Sun Giant EP which first brought them widespread recognition. For this writer's money, what makes Fleet Foxes a band worthy of continued revisits on record is an innate ability to balance brittle harmonies with soaring orchestral crescendos, and, as tonight's performance once again proves, this balancing act is arguably even more artfully maintained within a live setting.
Pecknold’s distinctive vocals tonight demand our complete attention. When it's just him and a softly-plucked guitar, the audience is transfixed; when he chooses to experiment with different pacing and accentuation, his voice is every bit as expressive as it is powerful, as articulate as it is an instrument in its own right. Whenever his bandmates chime in and the volume swells, the effect is equally impressive, the rich textures of vocals, bass and guitar overlapping brilliantly; befitting of such an elegant venue, each intricate element of every song is perfectly audible: each finger pick, each variation of Pecknold’s tone and each flourish found in the flute or organ is perfectly shaped, demonstrating the expert crafting of this band's new American songbook.
'Mykonos', from Sun Giant, sounds little short of transcendent within this context: a firm fan favourite, it combines the fragility, the instrumentation, the willingness to pound away at the guitar strings and, crucially, the harmonies to encapsulate everything Fleet Foxes have to offer. ‘Montezuma’, 'Blue Ridge Mountains' and ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ all follow in due course, leaving no one present in any doubt that this is a band adept at seamlessly shifting between the different sounds that have propelled them to success - and doing so with enough confidence and assurance to suggest they've been together for decades, not years.
And yet, for all their studied harmonic precision, the six men onstage tonight radiate the excitement of a band that is still shaping, honing and modifying its sound. As a partner to their records - which some detractors argue lack vitality - tonight's Apollo showcase proves that there is so much more to Fleet Foxes: there is energy, vigour, passion and, ultimately, vibrant beauty.