When I have to talk to interns about live reviewing, I often advise against reviewing crowds, unless something really unusual happens. It’s hardly unusual for a crowd to be excited and passionate – they’ve just paid ten, 20, 30 pounds to see one of their favourite artists, it’s what they expect to do.
Last Friday at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, however, I found myself constantly taken aback by the 2,000-odd crowd gathered in this beautiful old venue, the church of country music, to see the Fleet Foxes. London crowds tend to have a rather prissy attitude to music like this, so that the dominant atmosphere tends to be a reverential hush.
Here, though, every song is punctuated by whoops, hollers, deafening cheers, the cacophony of hammered pews. Whenever Fleet Foxes showcase those harmonies a cappella, the audience stand up and bawl approval. When, on a much-requested “Blue Ridge Mountains”, Robin Pecknold mentions Tennessee in the lyrics, the place goes mad. Gaps between songs stretch out for minutes, for one standing ovation after another, as the house lights go on and the band look out, awed and sheepish. “This is just about the best night I can ever remember,” says Pecknold towards the end, and you can see why.
It’s much more enjoyable to see a band like Fleet Foxes in this kind of context: the delicacy of their music is still tangible, but the celebratory expansiveness of it is brought to the fore, too. Nowadays, there’s more heft to the live show: Josh Tillman drives things along with more intensity, and the multiple skills of Morgan Henderson (on mandolin, violin, double bass, flute and sax, as far as I can remember) does much to thicken out the sound.
I’ve neglected to write about “Helplessness Blues” previously, due to some fluctuating feelings about it: a bunch of lovely songs, no doubt, but also a slight discomfort on my part about a certain musical preciousness second time out, and a feeling that some of the lyrical concerns came across as a little trite (I guess I must prefer stuff about squirrels in scarves rather than early-20s male angst, in terms of tweeness…).
Here, though, with the lyrics hard to pick out, and that fractionally more robust delivery, they sound tremendous. “Sim Sala Bim” kicks off a strong run through the middle of the set, that also includes “Your Protector” and “Mykonos”, where they switch up the usual three-part harmonies of Pecknold, Tillman and Christian Wargo to rapturous four-part calls-and-responses, with Casey Wescott (very fond of thudding Brian Wilson piano lines, incidentally) joining in.
Perhaps the best moments, though, come in the thrumming early peak of “Grown Ocean” and the rococo fantasia of “The Shrine/An Argument”. The latter has, among many other things, those buccaneering Grizzly Bear guitars, plus Henderson valiantly recreating the free jazz break by himself. Both songs, though, are most notable for Pecknold’s sparing and striking deployment of his deeper voice; a strong and soulful roar that, predictably, sends the Ryman crowd into ecstasies whenever he lets rip.
If anyone else has seen the band on this tour, let me know what’s happening. I’d be fascinated to know whether this has been happening every night, or whether it’s a Nashville thing. The only comparable experience I can recall is seeing Wilco play once over the state line in Asheville, so I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s a kind of southern hospitality?