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- Apollo, Manchester »
What do you do when you've made a classic album? Especially if that album is your blimmin' first? Fleet Foxes could have, quite feasibly, retired in 2008. Sod this impossible second album syndrome, for a lark. We've peaked. We've fulfilled our potential (already). Add any other ridiculous statements you can think of for anything so crazily fledgling. But as befits a band whose sound could quite earnestly be described as Little House on the Prairie folk, Fleet Foxes have chosen to explore their surroundings, a little. Not only is their second record more than a gentle skip away from the almost-perfected melodic folk of their debut, the live performance has also moved on.
Not that it really needed to improve that much. A couple of years ago [they blew me away](http://drownedinsound.com/gigs/42789/reviews/4137860), so expectations are both unreasonably high and music hack-measured. When you see a great band multiple times (especially at the same place) it becomes obvious which moment is brighter, which album translates better, which period in time the band seem happiest. As far as their recorded material is concerned, the first and most lasting impression is that new album Helplessness Blues is certainly a less chirpy affair than Fleet Foxes. The tendency to revel in harmonised melody has given way to less immediately charming but no-less-brilliant Robin Pecknold monologues. But for all Pecknold's strains of confession, ...Blues loses some of the magical balance of its predecessor.
It's an imbalance (and we're talking something minute, here) that, fortunately, has the effect of changing and possibly even lifting the live performance. Pecknold's piercing howls and barks feel far more centre stage, and so does he, like his more demure bandmates may have dug a few encouraging elbows into ribs before the tour bus started rolling, whispering, "This is your show now." Whatever may or may not have happened after the last tour and before the start of this one, there's no confusing the fact that Pecknold & co. now stand confidently rather than sit, and the band as a whole is in a more conventional band formation. Although the famous comfort mug still sits innocently by his feet, Pecknold's body language is tall and boisterous, as though he were actively trying to decrease the unnecessarily large gap between himself and the Apollo audience. Noticeable too, is the Status Quo-like amount of amplification. Devoid of any particular light show, the performance is, instead, strangely backlit by a series of blinking on/off Fender amp switches. Refer to this band in the same bracket as Crosby, Stills and Nash again, and next tour they'll be handing out earplugs on the way in, My Bloody Valentine-style.
As you'd expect from a band so obviously meticulous (do you know how long four-part harmonies take to get that right?) and used to producing measured pieces of music, this isn't an overly loud performance, but it is a powerful one. During the last tour the temptation to sit down cross-legged, holding hands with strangers was almost as strong as the urge to just stand there and happy-face gawp like a proud Christian that thinks he just saw Jesus looking at him through a bus window. While things aren't quite edge-of-your-seat balls-to-the-floor madness this time either, it's a more intense hour and a half, the heat rising from the band and cheek-by-jowl mob downstairs enough to make it uncomfortable in the seats above. The set itself is an intelligently-woven patchwork comprising pretty much every song from both albums. Pairs of songs sharing the same key are often conjoined, partly to save time but also to offset the denser material of ...Blues with the prettier tales from Fleet Foxes.
First album highlights 'Your Protector', 'He Doesn't Know Why' and 'Blue Ridge Mountains' explode with brotherly love and childlike wonder, as they always do. But tonight it is Helplessness Blues' turn to prove itself. 'The Shrine' lulls you in and hits you blindside with that "_NOO MAAAAATTER WHAT I DO_" sucker punch. 'Bedouin Dress' and 'Lorelai' skip and bounce along like kids playing in the park. Fittingly, the set ends with the album's title track. People stand frozen and stupefied in admiration and one or two thousand hairs are stood on end. Considering how much heat there is in the building, this must go down as some achievement. As people pour out into refreshingly cool streets, there's the very real sense that part three of this story can't come soon enough.
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