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June 3, 2011 8:44 pm

Fleet Foxes, HMV Apollo, London

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To catch Fleet Foxes early on, in 2008, was an almost holy joy – as much for sharing in the reverence afforded them as for their obvious devotion to their craft. The Seattle band’s close-harmony singing drew upon the Sacred Harp tradition as readily as the Beach Boys. The closer you got to them, the better it sounded. In Britain, the number of converts multiplied, so that an indie-folk group who pressed 8,000 initial copies of their debut album achieved platinum sales.

Success meant bigger arenas and greater distance from the crowd. At 2009’s Glastonbury, their performance was dwarfed by the vastness of the main stage. Robin Pecknold, the lead singer and songwriter, developed a case of “difficult second-album syndrome”. In spite of its title, Helplessness Blues shows the patient has pulled through well enough.

The second of three nights at the 5,000-capacity Apollo found Fleet Foxes older and meatier, still capable of glorious harmonies, even if – inevitably – some of that precious intimacy has been lost. The scenery was bare save for some dappling spotlights. Even for a band who are clearly “all about the music” it’s brave – and unusual – to play without any visual stimulus. What most held the eye was Josh Tillman’s drumming: at one point, he was bashing his kit with tambourines and he supplied, superbly, the extra beef required by gigs of this size.

Pecknold can’t help but write lovely melodies; “Battery Kinzie”, for example, being reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel. Several of the new songs are longer jams to allow for the larger scale at which the six-piece now operate. Sonically, the watchword is not so much helplessness as restlessness, all shifting layers and moods.

What originally made the first-album tracks so magical was that they were otherworldly, like fables. As a child might grow out of fairy tales, Fleet Foxes now display a certain wariness towards them. Nevertheless, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” was stunningly good. Sung with more resignation than fear about “turning myself into a demon”, it had the majestic ache of The Band. “White Winter Hymnal”, like a party piece they were loath to be defined by, was flawless but seemingly over in a flash.

Pecknold’s solo, acoustic tour de force, “Oliver James”, began the encore. As starkly beautiful as ever, it did feel a little like the audience claiming its pound of flesh. The evolution of Fleet Foxes is hardly Dylan going electric, but for some fans it must be a dilemma of that sort. “Helplessness Blues”, a rapturous tune whose lyrics overcook the hippy-dippy solipsism, was a melancholy sign-off. For me, Fleet Foxes remain a band in transition. I’m already keen to know where they’ll go next.

Tour continues; www.fleetfoxes.com

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