- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

Seattle folk-rock band Fleet Foxes kicked off a late-summer tour with a soaring, percussive set at Washington’s 9:30 Club on Wednesday night.

Playing for roughly 75 minutes, the band moved through more than a dozen songs, drawing the night’s material mostly from 2008’s critically acclaimed, self-titled debut LP. Technically flawless, the band’s performance seemed more energetic and more aggressive than their recordings — not just louder, but faster, edgier, more beat-driven.

Part of this was due to the mix, which emphasized the rock aspects of the band’s rock-folk sound. In the club setting, drummer Josh Tillman’s rhythm work stood out in the mix, Casey Wescott’s keyboard could hardly be heard, and frontman Robin Pecknold’s guitar was far more bracing than its silky smooth sound on the record — and, on occasion, veered briefly into unpleasantly harsh territory.

That never lasted long, however, as the band’s majestic, perfectly executed four-part vocals were what really set the tone for the night. On every song, Mr. Pecknold, Mr. Wescott and Mr. Tillman joined bassist Christian Wargo in epic harmonies. The band’s stunning vocal work, shared by every member of the band except guitarist Skyler Skjelset, is a rarity in the world of indie rock, where vocalists often are content to yell, mumble and squeal.

The shaggy rockers of Fleet Foxes, however, can really sing, and don’t seem to mind reminding listeners regularly. Nearly every one of the band’s songs carves out a prominent place for the four singers to show off. Indeed, the band members often use their vocal abilities like extra orchestral instruments, creating harmonic layers with vocal sounds — “oohs” and “ahs” — rather than words.

Those moments made for some of the night’s best. Highlights from the set included the circular chanting of “White Winter Hymnal,” the arching harmonies of “He Doesn’t Know Why” and the whisper-like final melody of “Your Protector.”

The sold-out, early-bird show was part of a sort of rock ‘n’ roll double-header — the band was scheduled to play again just a few hours later, causing Mr. Pecknold to joke that the early audience was getting the better, or at least fresher, material. “We’ll just repeat the same banter, but half-heartedly” at the second show, he said.

Scheduling multiple sets certainly made for some atypical show times: Doors for the first set opened at 6 p.m. Doors for the second opened at 10:30. Rather than complain, some dedicated fans seemed to see it as an opportunity to catch the band twice. When Mr. Pecknold asked who from the crowd would be attending both shows, a substantial portion of the crowd responded with cheers.

Not everyone in the crowd would be up for the late show, however. While there were plenty of drinking-age fans in attendance, the crowd at the early show skewed young, with groups of skinny teens peering over the venue’s balcony railing as parent-aged chaperones looked on from behind.

Between songs, the band improvised a ditty about a homeless guy eating chili and bantered extensively, and amusingly, about Rockville, where Mr. Tillman grew up.

Opening act Espers put on a competent if largely unmemorable performance. Their layered, ambling, folk songs often were pretty, at times even elegant. But with four of the six members seated onstage, the band generated little energy and often seemed out of place in the stand-up, rock-oriented venue.

At the end of the night, however, that hardly mattered. Fueled by the stirring elegance of their lofty harmonies, Fleet Foxes clearly had more than enough energy to keep the night going. And just a few hours after leaving the stage the first time, that’s exactly what they would do.

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