By: Mike Thomas
Fleet Foxes is one of those rare bands that I can clearly recall hearing for the first time. For me, it was a late night, the summer of 2008. The song was “White Winter Hymnal,” the lead single for the group’s self-titled debut LP. I remember it coming on the radio just as I turned the corner to the street of my childhood home, where I still resided. The song immediately grabbed my attention, and I idled the car in the driveway until it was finished.
That night, I was coming home from a party on the Ohio State campus, where many of my friends were enrolled and plugging right along in what must have been their sophomore year. I was just at the beginning of my own adventures in higher learning, or the relative beginning—a year or so into my first stint at community college, hopelessly lacking in any sort of direction.
Sitting in the driveway that night, bathed in streetlamp light and the driving rhythms issuing forth from the speakers of my late '90s sedan, I had no Idea where I was going in life. It would be the better part of a decade before I would get my act together and earn a degree.
I mention this only so that you’ll know I’m speaking from experience when I say there are generally two camps of people who return to college in their mid-to-late 20s. The first group consists of your practical types—folks looking to make a change in careers, adding a new set of skills to their arsenal in hopes of attracting gainful employment and a better way of life. The second camp, the one I belonged to, are people with something to prove, a misguided need for accomplishment and validation, student loan debt be damned.
Then there is Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, whose hiatus from the band and subsequent enrollment at Columbia University complicates this model. Pecknold is such an immensely gifted musical talent that to choose another career path would be absurd, and he clearly had no intention of doing so. So did this international folk-rock sensation, the driving creative force behind a Grammy-nominated band, really suffer from feelings of inadequacy?
By the time Fleet Foxes got around to playing the aforementioned “White Winter Hymnal” during its Saturday night performance at Express Live, it kicked off what clearly felt like a distinct second part to its sprawling set. The majority first six or so songs performed were off of the most recent album, Crack-up, which takes its name from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay collection and marked Pecknold’s post-educational return to the group.
Perhaps Pecknold really did go back to school for reasons of utility—to pepper in even more ornately crafted and esoteric literary flavor into his songwriting. From the comfortable, easygoing presence he exhibited on stage, it is hard to picture him as the kind of guy who would have anything more to prove to the world.
Throughout the performance, songs went on in an almost seamless chain, one flowing into the next without break. Instrument changes were frequent, often occurring mid-song. For a band with such a polished studio sound as Fleet Foxes, the live experience is a faithful recreation of the sonic complexity on display throughout its discography. Brass instruments, a standard bass and an ever-changing rotation of guitars lend to the rich, full sound. Depth is achieved with little apparent electronic manipulation, minus the echoing layers of reverb that are a trademark component of the group’s style.
Due to similarities in career trajectory—a hiatus from an extremely successful music career to attend college and eventual comeback—the comparison has been drawn between Pecknold and Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. To see Pecknold live, the comparison to the bashful and geeky Cuomo just doesn’t hold up. In front of a packed audience, Pecknold is humble and workmanlike, looking completely at ease. Whatever led to the hiatus, it would seem he has found what he needed and is content.