As we arrived in the iconic, well coloured sails for the opening night of Vivid, the excitement for the return of Seattle outfit Fleet Foxes, who were helping opening the festival, was palpable. A screen sat at the back of the stage, and a note (presumably) from the band told us they missed us (“welcome to the show (we missed you)”), then requested “no filming of any kind”. Of course there would be plenty of new material tonight, with the long awaited new album Crack-Up on the way in a couple of weeks and these four Vivid shows among the first of their long awaited return to the stage; though the group did do four intimate shows in the US in the leadup to these dates, which served as warm ups to their Sydney Opera House return. In fact, one of their last performances was in this very room, at the start of 2012. And indeed, after five long years, we missed them too.
As the set began, lead singer Robin Pecknold arrived on stage with no less than nine people behind him; a string quartet employed to take part in most of the new material. A quartet of brass laden men would be seen later, too, accentuating just how big and complex some of the new material is. And they launched the set with a taste of that new music, as Robin digressed that playing this very venue, on this very night, may be the only reason their new album is hitting shelves next month:
Being asked to do this (play Vivid) is probably how we finished our album on time. Thank you for waking us up, we’re very happy to be here.
They opened with a barrage of new material, melded together into an epic, diverse 15 minute opus that saw a myriad of instruments appear along the way: a bow was used on the guitar, the flute and a sax of some description made an appearance, while the string quartet featured heavily. The music wasn’t what we’d come to know from the band – less focused on melodies and more focused on musical exploration. But it had us hooked.
Naturally, the known material saw a huge response from the crowd, kicking things off with the stunning harmonies of “Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal”, which moved seemlessly into “Ragged Wood” and then personal favourite “Your Protector”. The well loved songs sounded a bit rusty at times – this is their fifth show in five years after all and they no doubt just got off a plane, so it’s easy to forgive – and they only got tighter as the set continued, and Robin’s vocals strengthened.
Another run of new material followed, this time with four men on the trumpets and trombones, as well as the string quartet, including “The Cascades”, “Mearcstapa” and “On Another Ocean (January / June)”, all blending in from one to the next as with the openers. It’s fair to say the new songs are sounding the band’s most experimental, with an almost free form jazz approach to some of the arrangements. It’s refreshing from a band who had perhaps felt backed into a corner musically – as exquisite as that musical corner may be. Though it’s fair to say the new songs may be divisive among the more casual fans, as a fan myself, the grandeur and unpredictable qualities of the new material serve as welcome additions to their catalogue. I’d expect to see some Pet Sounds comparisons in reviews next month – and they should definitely take that as a compliment.
The set continued to jump between new and old as the group worked towards a lengthy encore; “Mykonos” shining particularly bright before they left the stage, as did new track “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” (strings and all), as well as “The Shrine/An Argument” which was the highlight of the main set.
Things were stripped back for the start of the encore, which always suits the venue well. Robin with his bassist and the string quartet played a new track “I Should See Memphis” (an early album highlight if tonight is any indication), then Robin went solo on the acoustic for “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”. “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” saw Robin join forces with his keyboardist, and then the full band returned for a few more tracks to close out the night, with “Blue Ridge Mountains” a crowd favourite and the incredible “Helplessness Blues” closing things out, just as it did five years earlier. And even after a two hour set, it left us wanting more.
Fleet Foxes have kicked off Vivid in spectacular style. And on that note, a shout out must be made to the excellent lighting, mixing and transfixing animations (with occasional video) that accompanied their set. Musically, it would be hard to argue this was the band at their best – but you can forgive them for a few weaker vocal moments in the first half of the set; it was virtual perfection in the second and it has been a long time between drinks, something they are the first to acknowledge. But when you’re this powerful, this hypnotic, and this loved even after that long, you know you’re a group that has something special. And with a new album to promote, that something special is only going to keep getting… um… more special? Here’s hoping it’s not another five years before we see them beneath these sails again.
Spoiler alert! It won’t be! Fleet Foxes have three more shows at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid this weekend, plus the world’s first listening session of their new album with a live Q&A. For more details, head to the official Vivid Live website.
You can watch a live stream from the final Fleet Foxes show at the Opera House HERE.
The reviewer attended the 26th May 2017 performance of Fleet Foxes at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud