photo of Blitzen Trapper at SXSW, by Mark C. Austin
Fleet Foxes & Blitzen Trapper
March 29, 2008
Playing to a packed Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes spoke of vomit, sang pentatonic melodies in stacked harmonies, and charmed in a way befitting an independent rock band on a weekend night. The vomit, which arrived just before the band took the stage, was the product of the Foxes’ chief beard Robin Pecknold, celebrating his 22nd birthday, as it were, and suffering some sort of nasty sickness—an ailment that, in addition to the puke, also shorted a few notes in his range. So it went. Pecknold did his best, accepting a packet of Emergen-C from the front, sitting (as usual) among his standing bandmates.
Though Pecknold calls on the same croon reserves as My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, and the Foxes a fuzzy Americana similar to MMJ’s, the Sub Pop signees find their depth in the collective. On “Drops in the River,” from their recent Sun Giant EP, Skye Skjelset bowed his guitar, while drummer Nick Peterson played with a mallet and a stick, breaking the song into a soft tock to guide the spiraling voices. A few numbers later, on “White Winter Hymnal” (their flawless, viral single) the harmonies began unaccompanied by instrumentation, pirouetting upward with each melodic lift, like the Beach Boys in full teenage-symphony-to-God prayer mode.
With few exceptions, much of the quintet’s music operated similarly: sell it with vocals. On “Oliver James,” from the forthcoming Ragged Wood, Pecknold performed solo, partially a capella, delivering a melody that could be lifted from a murder ballad. But, just as quickly, it was back to the harmonies, with “Mykonos,” which broke down into a CSN chorale coral, Casey Wescott adding a subtle organ counterpoint. No matter how many times during the 45-minute set that Pecknold, Westcott, and bassist Christian Wargo pulled their voices together, the joy of the effect never diminished—flu-strained delivery or not.
The crowd thinned slightly when labelmates Blitzen Trapper took the stage. “We’ve prepared some American music for you tonight,” guitarist Marty Marquis announced, which was certainly literally true. Where Wild Mountain Nation, the Portland band’s debut, came off with over-saturated eclecticism, the music hardened live into a solid three-guitar jangle, frontman Eric Earley punching through like Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen or Dan Bern (“Country Caravan”).
Like Philadelphia revivalists Dr. Dog, the sextet’s games occasionally bordered on stylistic tribute, like the effectively Beatlesy “Going Down,” from their new tour-only EP3. Elsewhere, though, it all added up. On “Shoulder Full of You”—also from the tour disc—Earley found a perfect nook for his voice. “Deer tracks on an unmade bed,” he sang, the image succeeding on sheer instinct. The band hit on a few new numbers which, on first glance, seemed cut from a similar Wild Mountain cloth. Elsewhere, the band suffered when trying to downshift the vibe, which moved more like a vacuum and less like a quieting.
When the band reached for chaos/transcendence/rawk, the source was frequently drummer Brian Adrian Koch, whose Keith Moon poundings fueled occasional power pop lapses. Often, though, the band’s in-studio spaz tactics, like the modular sounding “Green King Sings,” just became bashfests. Perhaps the polar opposite of Fleet Foxes’ delicate maneuvers, Blitzen Trapper didn’t quite charm in the same way, though they didn’t have the threat of vomit to slide on, either.