Friday, April 20 , 2018, 3:46 pm | Fair 63º


Jeff Moehlis: Fleet Foxes Bring Harmony to the Santa Barbara Bowl

Riding a new album, band brings harmony-rich indie folk back to town

When the Fleet Foxes took the stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl to enthusiastic screams from the audience Tuesday night, one of the band members quipped, “Let us earn your love.”

And they did.

Indeed, it was a truly magical night of indie folk rock, with crisp, reverbed multipart harmonies ringing out in the nighttime air as a full moon rose up center stage. The band is touring in support of its second album, Helplessness Blues, the highly anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed 2008 self-titled debut, which was — in my opinion, rightly — at or near the top of many critics’ best album lists that year. The band’s only previous concert in town was in 2009 at UCSB’s UCen. Songwriter and frontman Robin Pecknold also played a cool opening set at Joanna Newsom’s concert at the Lobero Theatre just over a year ago.

As suggested by its title, Helplessness Blues has a bit of darkness to it, at least lyrically. The concert’s first song, “The Plains / Bitter Dancer,” has the lyrics “Bloody reaper / You took a room and you settled in.” The song “Montezuma” includes “In dearth or in excess / Both the slave and the empress / Will return to the dirt I guess / Naked as when they came.” “Lorelai,” which has a “Norwegian Wood” musical feel to it, laments “Now I can see how / We were like dust on the window / Not much, not a lot / Everything stolen or borrowed.” And then, “Battery Kinzie,” one of the better songs on an album of strong ones, starts off with “I woke up one morning / All my fingers rotting / I woke up a dying man, without a chance.”

But somehow such lyrics don’t bring you down — the sheer beauty of the musical arrangements prevents that. It is a tribute to the raw talent of the band that they make such arrangements seem effortless, because there is a lot going on. In addition to the beautiful vocals, sonic richness comes through instrumental embellishments such as mandolin and quickly bowed violin on “Sim Sala Bim,” flute on “The Plains / Bitter Dancer,” and bowed bass and out-there saxophone on “The Shrine / An Argument.”

At times, it was just Pecknold with his guitar, as for “Blue Spotted Tail,” which kept the audience rapt with attention, and the brand-new “I Let You,” which kicked off the encore and has a nice Paul Simon sound to it, perhaps a bit of a preview to Simon’s upcoming Santa Barbara Bowl show on Oct. 23.

The band also played a healthy chunk of its debut album, including the amazing, bright-sounding “White Winter Hymnal,” which flowed into “Ragged Wood,” arguably the best two songs in the catalog. These
had a great mix that allowed the lyrics to come through better in concert than on the album. The band also played “Your Protector” in a more trancy style, and “Blue Ridge Mountains” in a heavier style than on the album.

Although this all sounds so serious, some levity came between songs when drummer J. Tillman joked that Santa Barbara makes him think of his Mom (named Barbara) and Christmas, as in them being introduced: “Santa. Barbara.” He then noted that “God knows, they both like their white wine.”

The evening started with a cool set by The Walkmen, including various new tracks plus some from their already recorded catalog such as “On The Water,” “Juveniles,” “Blue As Your Blood,” “Woe Is Me” and “All Hands and the Cook.” The latter of these included the ominous lyrics “The rain will come / The summer’s passed.” It turned out that, apart from a few sprinkles, the rain did not come; but summer, alas, does seem to have passed.

All told, it was a glorious night of fresh, amazing music at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

The Plains / Bitter Dancer
Mykonos English House
Battery Kinzie
Bedouin Dress
Sim Sala Bim
Your Protector White Winter Hymnal
Ragged Wood Montezuma He Doesn’t Know Why
Lorelai The Shrine / An Argument
Blue Spotted Tail Grown Ocean

I Let You
Sun It Rises Blue Ridge Mountains
Helplessness Blues

Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site,

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