On Sept. 25, Fleet Foxes and the Walkmen played Mountain Park, the former trolley park-turned concert venue that’s cut into the woods at the base of Mount Tom. Playing for a sizeable, subdued crowd—hip college-aged bros in Colby sweatshirts and even hipper kids in headbands and cut-off “jorts” mingled with the more-than-occasional middle-aged couple—both bands worked through trademark sets that gratified an eager, respectful, seven-dollar-Magic-Hat-sipping collection of concertgoers.
After a loud, 45-minute, catalog-spanning opening set from indie stalwarts the Walkmen, Fleet Foxes took the stage, spread five-wide with drummer Josh “J” Tillman positioned behind lead singer Robin Pecknold. The six-piece opened with “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and continued on through their set—a set dangerously similar to almost every other post-Helplessness Blues set—that mixed new with old, both in songs played and sounds created. Combining a blend of psychedelic folk reminiscent of the always-name-checked Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Zombies, with more modern pop sensibilities, Pecknold and co. harmonized their way through a nearly two-hour set filled with Helplessness Blues cuts and the occasional Fleet Foxes or Sun Giant track.
While Helplessness Blues is a solid effort, when its tracks are placed directly in front of or behind tracks off of the band’s self-titled debut, disparities become apparent. Whether it’s the added age of the earlier songs, the extensive road-testing they’ve already received, or the indelible mark the band’s debut has left in the collective consciousness of indie fans, the night’s highlights belonged to the band’s earlier material. The choir of voices and collection of churning guitars on “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” have aged well, and are still as arresting as they were in 2008.
While Fleet Foxes tracks may be the band’s strength, this is still very much a Helplessness Blues tour: More than half of the set was devoted to the album’s material. The Helplessness-era addition of thoroughly bearded, former Blood Brothers member Morgan Henderson has added new elements to the band’s sound. Henderson is a freakish musical talent— positioned quietly stage left—who played at least 10 different instruments throughout the night, often switching between flute, upright bass or guitar mid-song. His worth as the multi-instrumentalist of Fleet Foxes is invaluable and his addition is a welcome one.
Fleet Foxes tend to draw vacuous adjectives from critics’ pens: “ethereal,” “pastoral” or “earthen.” These might feel like a good way to describe a flannelled-and-bearded band from Seattle, but these terms ultimately serve as a means to an end, descriptors and signifiers of “folk rock.” But on this night—in no small part due to the surrounding blanket of trees, the scent of some other trees, the official end of summer, an unseasonably warm night, and the little sense of community concertgoers carved for themselves at the base of Mount Tom—those vacuous adjectives felt a little less empty. Indie folk rock in the woods, on a Sunday, to close out summer, will do that.