Fleet Foxes - Manchester Apollo
The fireworks and lasers are a no-show and rumours of Nicola Roberts joining them for the encores remain just that. Damn the blasted gossip mill! Common sense take hold. This is the Fleet Foxes live experience. As acres of plaid and beard confirm, we're here for the music, the music, the music. Sparse, barely there lighting only adds to the sense of this being a performance all about the music. In other words, barely a performance at all.
Harsh? A little. If a delicate start (instrumental 'The Cascades') is brave, the band's confidence in their new material is commendable. The first half hour is largely about latest album Helplessness Blues and a pat on the back to three thousand devotees who demonstrate uncommon fortitude in the absence of old favourites. But boy, when they unfurl 'Mykonos', that irresistable two part lesson in all that is gutsy and glorious about their windswept guitars and tremulous harmonies, does the Apollo warm up. The evening's first roar greets the Foxes' finest moment. A deftly judged pairing of 'Tiger Mountain Peasant Song' and 'White Winter Hymnal' follow and maintain the goodwill but before too long the pace slackens and little pockets of fire here and there sputter out. To remain engaged throughout requires absolute focus and some dedication. The dynamics of the evening make for an at times nervy experience. Robin Pecknold seems unsure how to deal with the extremes of the audience's involvement. Post-applause silences are awkward. On the few occasions anyone tries to liven things up with banter from the stalls, they get little return, the Fleet Foxes leader unable or unwilling to indulge in the kind of warm back and forth that enriches truly eventful shows.
There is something inneffably idealistic about Fleet Foxes; the backwoods imagery and references to the land and nature, a layer of folklore and history. It speaks of something unspoilt, rarified and unified, directed to the masses with lovingly communal intentions. All of this is to their absolute credit but, caught in a less forgiving arena than that which exists between the lone listener and his armchair, cracks appear. It's easy to drift off as the set goes beyond the hour mark. Textures, arrangements, the commitment to voice and instrument, all these things are undeniable and to be admired. But they're difficult to love. A full house confirms their ongoing position at the head of the pack but ultimately a dearth of great tunes, gold-plated hooks, finds them out. Unlike so many of their scene-sharing compatriots, Fleet Foxes rely so much more on their distinctive sound than an abundance of rabble-rousing big hitters. Tonight lacks some of the priceless components found at truly memorable events - the unexpected, camaraderie, laughs, even. You can, despite what the song says, buy a thrill. But, on the evidence here tonight, it ain't Fleet Foxes who are selling.