If the streets of Williamsburg felt a little empty the past two nights, it’s not because The Rapture struck New York’s hipster elite a few days early. The real culprit for the L-train exodus: cult favorite Fleet Foxes, which played two sold-out shows way, WAY uptown at the massive United Palace Theater venue Wednesday and Thursday night. The converted movie theater (which has been characterized as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco” ) holds 3,293 people — that’s an awful lot of facial-haired, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing 20-somethings migrating to the northern tip of the city.
The six members of Fleet Foxes fit that description to a tee, but the Portland-based band’s image took a backseat to what these guys are really known for: lush, pure acapella harmonies coasting seamlessly into a neverending rotation of string instruments (which – impressingly – several members of the band often switched mid-song).
“We just randomly met Art Garfunkel,” frontman Robin Pecknold told the audience after a few opening songs. “He was like, ‘Hey there, I heard you guys have been copying my style…”
Cliches about the sincerest form of flattery aside, the comparison really is an apt one. The Fleet Foxes do channel the seventies sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, but they’re hardly pigeonholing themselves: songs from their newest album, “Helplessness Blues,” show a move away from the original album’s somber chamber-music style and towards more experimental leanings in jazz and folk rock.
Unassuming and self-admittedly a little nervous in the massive venue, the band kept the banter minimal, instead choosing to pack as many songs as possible into the one and a half-hour set. And pack them, they did: Fleet Foxes played almost every song from the band’s two albums, even throwing in older favorites including “Mykonos.”
Some of the best wisecracks of the night came from the back of the house, from tambourine-clashing maniac drummer Josh Tillman. Someone screamed “Jesus loves you!” and Tillman scoffed. “If Jesus loves me, then why does he treat me like shit?” Considering that Tillman delivered his quip to a sold-out house of over 3000 fans, we’ve gotta wonder what a good day would look like for this guy.
The night drew to a close with two encores: “Helpnessless Blues,” and “Oliver James,” which Pecknold performed alone, under a single spotlight, to spine-tingling effect. Accompanied by only his guitar – which he used, half the time, to knock out a beat for the audience to clap to – this was Fleet Foxes stripped down to their essence – the purity of Pecknold’s voice, the simple beauty of the lyrics, and a lilting tune to marry the two together.