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I’ve heard the Name Game play out in many contexts, but at a concert—between the drummer and some guy standing ten rows into the audience—was a new one. “Do you know Rebecca Callahan*?” shouted a tall kid in a white Polo. “She was, like, two grades ahead…”
“Rebecca, oh, yeah,” replied Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman.
This, one supposes, is the fate of stage banter at a show when the drummer admits he grew up in a nearby suburb (Rockville) and is pressed upon to kill time between every song while the lead singer re-tunes his 12-string guitar and the rest of the band hangs out in unhelpful silence. But that was the sort of casual vibe Fleet Foxes brought to the 9:30 Club on Wednesday, breaking down the distance between the band and the sold-out audience in such a way that it felt less like a crowded concert hall than the living room of a buddy who makes you pay $9 for a Guinness. Other topics of band-audience banter included the menu at Rockville pastry shop The Fractured Prune, frontman Robin Pecknold’s bad haircut (hidden beneath a red knit hat, which he refused to remove), and whether Tillman more closely resembled Jesus Christ, Charles Manson, or Rob Zombie.
The singing, though, was the show’s real fascination. The band’s post-Beach Boys, fjord-folk sound (which has finally given a cappella nerds and hipsters something to talk about with each other) relies heavily on dynamic three- and four-part harmonies, with subtle moving lines within them. It’s a slippery weapon to wield, and proper use requires absolute precision. But from the opener—the a cappella “Sun Giant” leading into “Sun It Rises”—through the epics “Mykonos” and “Blue Ridge Mountains,” the Foxes were tuned to each other far more consistently than Pecknold’s 12-string. This was especially impressive given that it was their opening show of the tour, and the tea-swilling Pecknold, as he put it, already felt “like dying.”
M. Ward, who played the following night, actually sounded like he might be dying—although that’s just an incident of his naturally laryngitic voice. No matter for Ward, whose mission seemed to be keeping old styles alive. The Hoarse Whisperer deployed his definitive rasp in service of what sounded like a blend of throwback blues melodies, surfer rhythms, and country-folk instrumentation (an alchemy that is rendered all too generic by the “indie” distinction that is often foisted upon him). Ward hinted at these influences all night—particularly on songs like “Big Boat,” an uptempo 12-bar that could have been lifted directly from the ‘50s pop charts—before sending the crowd into a full-fledged fit of twisting and hand-jiving with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
On both nights I only caught the tail end of the opening acts, but my impressions were that Espers—who played pleasant baroque despite the considerable handicap of being comatose—was all substance and no style; Ledroit Park natives Chain & the Gang—who dressed in striped prison jumpsuits and played one interminable, mostly spoken-word “song” for the last 15 minutes of its set—was all style and little substance. (But bear in mind, these were only superficial impressions.)
*not her real name.
Photo courtesy of www.jeremycharles.com.