"Welcome to the show (We Missed You)", the projector screen read before Fleet Foxes made their homecoming on a warm May evening. From the chatter and mingling happening in the crowd ahead of the set, it was clear that the feeling was mutual. It'd been five years since the Seattle group played their final shows in Tokyo before taking a hiatus, and nearly six since they last played their hometown. The time apart turned the folk-rock heroes into actual "folk heroes" – a mythical, unseen force that helped usher in the wave of acoustic music that would go on to dominate radio for the next half decade with imitators.
What always set Fleet Foxes apart was their expansion of their craft. Their Sun Giant EP and eponymous debut created a foundation of multi-part harmonies and jaunty rhythms that you couldn't blame other artists for trying a hand at themselves. But on their sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, the band showed just how ambitious they really were with lengthy epics that drew from Astral Weeks and atonal improvisation. Fans were left without answers of where they might go next – until now.
But before the band emerged, the crowd was treated to a rousing set from Captured Tracks signee Chris Cohen. The former Deerhoof member's dreamy was a great primer for the evening, indulging in psych-like jams that grounded themselves in pop structure. The short set focused heavily on his last record, As If Apart, giving a great introduction to new fans and leaving them wanting more. Before he left the stage he came through with one last surprise: a duet with Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold on the song "Heart Beat". The two's voices are remarkably different with Cohen's a sweeping, sleeping drawl and Pecknold's with a sharp, feverish howl, but they worked remarkably well together. It was a great teaser for what was about to come next.
Surprisingly, this was Fleet Foxes' first time ever performing at the Showbox at the Market. It's hard to think of a better setting for their return: a quintessentially Seattle venue that mirrors the intimacy of the band's music. True to the ever evolving nature of the band, they didn't rely on nostalgia to ease the audience in. Instead, they opened with a suite of the first three songs from their upcoming album, Crack-Up. It's always fascinating to watch a crowd react to hearing new material live for the first time, but it's even rarer for that to be the introduction of the set. Still, the audience was rapt and astutely listened. The new songs are dense, very much continuing off of the precedent set by Helplessness Blues. There were no giant sing-a-long choruses like on their self-titled record. These are songs that will surely be dissected endlessly upon their release and rightfully so. If Helplessness Blues felt heavy and layered, Crack-Up is hinting at challenging listeners even more. The band looked intensely focused as they performed the tracks, clearly impassioned by this new direction.
While the room was still and reverent during the Crack-Up songs, the mood couldn't have been any more different once the band began delving into their older material. "White Winter Hymnal" may not seem like a danceable, foot stomper on record, but the minute lead vocalist Robin Pecknold began singing the opening bars to the tracks there was a rush of excitement through the crowd. Once the drums kicked in, people began sashaying, singing, and throwing aside inhibitions. The feeling heightened through "Ragged Wood". Gone was the weighty veneration everyone had earlier. This was now a celebration. The band would continue to sprinkle in new material throughout the set, and the audience was keen on following them down these expansive rabbit holes, but the ping-ponging emotions would continue anytime a song like "Mykonos" appeared on the setlist. With the loyalty of their fans, it's possible those new songs will garner the same reactions down the road.
Having been a few years removed from the band's heyday, their Showbox set was a reminder of just how impactful the band's music has been. That they can suddenly reemerge and be greeted with such enthusiasm is a testament to the band's prowess. Pecknold and co. have consistently left their mark on fans with their sweeping harmonies and brilliantly finger-picked guitars. It's a joy to have the band back and, from the sounds of it, Crack-Up has the potential to be another masterpiece on the board. Time will tell, but Seattle is clearly ready to follow them down this mysterious new path.
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