The Pacific Northwest has always been the place for weird, left-of centre music. While the rest of the world follows the established norms, places like Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington produce bands that, somehow, while no one is looking, help change the face of music.
The garage band (perhaps the first garage band) The Kingsmen from Portland recorded a little ditty that was to become one of the most influential songs of all time: ‘Louie Louie’. Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and while the U.K. bathed in the dreamy sounds of bands like The Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and James, a revolution was taking place – and it was happening in the Pacific Northwest as Nirvana came forth with their ear-crunching second album Nevermind, one of the most influential records of all time.
Once more it seems that Seattle and Portland have stepped up to the plate with two bands that have taken the left-hand fork at the crossroads while everyone else seems to be standing in the middle looking at their maps.
It was all happening at the Manchester Apollo when Blitzen Trapper, a six piece experimental folk-rock band based in Portland, took the stage. The reaction from the audience who expected them to be “just some folk band” reminded me of that scene from Back to the Future and the reaction Marty McFly’s Van Halen-soaked version of ‘Johnny B Goode’ had on the unsuspecting prom crowd. Polite, confused applause soon became enthusiastic cheers as the band seduced the crowd with its blend of folk, psychedelia, and guitar-crunching rock with lead singer Eric Early’s vocals travelling from a croon to an ear-piercing scream in seconds.
Already making waves in the States with Rolling Stone honouring their fourth album Furr with a two-page feature, the band quickly impressed the crowd with a generous selection of songs from their already prodigious back catalogue, occasionally joined on stage by friends Robin Pecknold, Josh Tillman and Skyler Skjelset from the headline act. In fact throughout the evening both bands would randomly run on stage to join their friends. It soon felt more like a family reunion that a rock concert.
Fleet Foxes then came aboard and it is no exaggeration when I say, or gush rather, that it was one of the best performances I have ever seen.
The band opened with the Madrigal-esque ‘Sun Giant’. The power and beauty of these young men’s voices is nothing short of spectacular, with lead singer Robin Pecknold’s vocals reaching such operatic heights that the metal barrier I was leaning against started to vibrate. They then followed with ‘Drops in the River’ and ‘Country House’, also from their second EP, 2008’s Sun Giant with their buddies from Blitzen Trapper bounding onto the stage to join in.
And those were just the appetizers.
“I was following the…I was following the…I was following the..I” The temperature rose suddenly from warm and cosy to frantic and delirious as the band launched into the truly gorgeous gem that is ‘White Winter Hymnal’ which had the audience chanting along. After that it was a merciless assault of priceless tracks from their brilliant self-titled debut. They immediately launched into the joyous ‘Ragged Wood’ and by then the audience could barely contain themselves, singing heartily long to the chorus of “oooohhhh, oohh oohh ooohhh”. Pelknold’s impassioned rendition of the next song, and my favourite, ‘The Protector’ had me in tears, immediately longing to press the replay button and hear it again.
The rest of the band then left the stage, leaving Pecknold alone with the audience. In between cups of herbal tea he treated us to ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ and ‘Isles’ as well as two non-album tracks, one a traditional folk song about a wandering Jew, the other a new song, with Pecknold unplugging his guitar and stepping to the front of the stage; it was like we had all been transported to an intimate New York folk club. The rest of the band then rejoined him to perform the last song ‘Mykonos’ much to the crowd’s delight. The encore included two songs the audience feared would not get played that night, ‘Oliver James’ and ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ (once again with Blitzen Trapper in tow), but their wishes were granted and a grateful audience sang heartily along with both bands to finish off the exhilarating set .
Pecknold told the crowd that this was the end, for now, of their touring while they go back home and write and record their next offering. What a wonderful gift to leave us with until we have the pleasure of their company again.