Fleet Foxes made a bracing return from self-imposed exile on Monday, re-emerging in the Northern Rockies.
The Seattle-based indie-folk band, known for its walls of serene harmonies, kicked off its first tour in the U.S. in six years at the Wilma Theatre, after which it heads to Spokane, Portland and Seattle.
In an inversion of usual practice, the tour has started a full month before the band's third full-length album, "Crack-Up," is released on Nonesuch Records.
While taking that time off could spur fans' worries of creative exhaustion, in the case of Fleet Foxes their lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold went back to college, and appears to have returned energized, with new songs that push the band forward without departing too far from their signature.
The band has drifted away from some of the rock instrumentation that marked its second, breakout EP, "Sun Giant," in favor of acoustic arrangements, sometimes spare and often so intricate you couldn't expect them to be repeated live.
The more anthemic, electric version of the band was on display from the start of the show: piano, bass, drums, two electric guitars, and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson switching between a synth pad, upright bass, percussion, and, in the case of a cut of "Helplessness Blues," "The Shrine/An Argument," a free-jazz saxophone solo.
• The band, playing to a sold-out crowd of 1,400, opened with four songs with Pecknold on a semi-hollow electric guitar. They didn't bury new material mid-set, either. The opening run included "Naiads, Cassadies," which had its fair share of percussion and the harmonies and sparseness fans expect, and "Cassius," with ringing electric guitar lines and flute. In concert, they resemble the more folk-rock sound of the new single, "Third of May/Ōdaigahara." (A Fleet Foxes fan account on Twitter appears to have gotten a the set list.)
The first Fleet Foxes show in five years included a healthy mix of new and old. pic.twitter.com/A3T4USbx8c— Fleet Fools (@FleetFools) May 16, 2017
• After that set, Pecknold brought out an acoustic for "White Winter Hymnal," one of their best and most well-known tunes. The band's ability to produce massed harmonies live hasn't diminished one bit.
• Some fans appeared to expect studio recreations of songs off their first and second albums, "Fleet Foxes," (2008) and "Helplessness Blues" (2011). Pecknold did switch back and forth with acoustic and electric, but the band aimed for full arrangements of its back catalog, much as it had before retirement. They sounded energized and the room responded — for an often subdued band, it didn't have the feeling of a fireside folk show.
• Pecknold did step out alone with an acoustic for the encore for one tune, before the full band joined him for three more songs.
• The hometown front, it's rare for a band at Fleet Foxes level to start a tour in Missoula, and even more rare if they've been away for so long. Thankfully the crowd was enthusiastic but respectful, which bodes well for spreading the word about the Wilma and Missoula as a whole.
• Opening act Chris Cohen was excellent, with '60s folk harmonies and rhythms spiked with some sharp guitar lines and smooth keyboard playing — it prompted the rare occurrence of a fan profanely shouting for more keys.
• The tour continues with dates in Spokane, Portland and Seattle before the bands heads to Australia, Europe and the East Coast and then back to the West. Check out the dates here: fleetfoxes.co/tour.