LIVE REVIEW: (Sandy) Alex G & Fleet Foxes -- Live at The Midland
Photos: Jenna Lanae
I didn't know what to expect. To see Alex G at the Midland -- with Fleet Foxes, no less -- was surreal to me. I wondered how this juxtaposition would play out. Telling it was to see Alex carrying his own equipment onstage, undetected by the unassuming crowd. It seemed like he was used to this -- both carrying his own equipment and being undetected on this tour. I didn't disturb his peace.
Mere minutes after, Alex jammed through the chatter of the crowd without introduction, demanding attention with an overpowering "I think you're cute" (Kute) -- an interesting choice of opener for virgin ears. It gave them no illusion of the nature of his music, however, and served as a good compromise between oddball DIY indie and the more polished acts which grace the venue. And this isn't to suggest he wasn't welcome here; in fact, he was very warmly received. To the unacquainted crowd, this must have appeared an adept group of adept musicians playing catchy songs with odd chord progressions. Doubtless, this reception was due, in no small part, to the crystal-clear presentation of his set.
Unlike any of his studio recordings, Alex's vocals pushed through to the front of the mix, accompanied by pristine, isolated instrumentation. Front-and-center is a comfortable place for his vocals to reside; it seemed that Alex's voice faltered in all the right places. The blind listener, however, would assume a drastically different band. Though they offered laidback songs, the band seemed laser-focused; the first half of his set offered the crowd this laboriously relaxed collection of tunes. I like to think what followed was something he was eager to let loose.
Alex crashed through the crowd's comfort with Kicker, a song riddled with screeching guitar sounds -- the kind of sound that made people feel lame for plugging their ears. I thought this was a bold subversion of the sound he'd established thus far, and it certainly commanded the full attention of the crowd once more. He loosened up a bit, following with the folky Poison Root, then sat at his keyboard, fiddling with the microphone while the rest of the band played an instrumental placeholder. The latter half of his set consisted of a number of synth-laden tunes which crescendoed -- with the help of Alex's concentrated keyboard playing -- into the massive fizz-out at the end of Guilty. This sort of cacophony is a staple of his discography, but seems to work more naturally in the muddy mixes of his records; here, the instruments did not blend together. It did, however, serve as an awkwardly charming closer.
Outside the venue after his set, my friend Alice left a fake parking ticket on his windshield which prompted him to move his van. He took this in good humor, and seemed genuinely happy that there were fans there who came specifically to see him. It was a relief to see we weren't bothering him.
I went back into the venue to hear Fleet Foxes in the middle of I Am All That I Need, and was relieved that I didn't miss anything. I took my place amid the crowd once more to hear some singing along, and some reverently longing for more familiar material -- I was among the former. The opening sequence of their sprawling set consisted of the first three tracks of Crack-Up. The cohesive nature of the record translated into an undeniable extension of live energy. I got the sense, however, that the crowd would have been happy with Three Blind Mice -- front man Robin Pecknold was welcomed with thunderous applause. It was my first time seeing Fleet Foxes. Simply put, I was blown away.
I expected at least a little bit of corner-cutting in terms of vocal delivery -- especially given the demanding nature of some of these songs. I heard no such thing, and on the contrary was pleasantly surprised to hear Pecknold reside comfortably in his upper register; some of the baritone vocals on Crack-Up were substituted with words a few octaves higher. He wasn't afraid to throw his voice out to the screaming crowd. The opening sequence showcased the emphasis on lush harmonies and gratuitous reverb which would permeate the rest of the set. Continuing on, the Foxes trotted through the loose drums and sauntering guitars of Grown Ocean, accompanied visually by the moving paint motifs of the Third of May music video.
Taking a breather, Pecknold commented, "This is an incredible place," and was greeted with a loud "THANK YOU" from the crowd. At this, he chuckled and thanked the crowd. He then broke into Ragged Wood, prompting the loud adoration of the crowd. It was here that the real singalong began. The striking vocal harmonies, underpinned by the crowd's contribution, painted a picture of the experience of music which reminded me of its enchanting, unitive nature. This was complimented by the band's demeanor; they seemed like they were just a group of friends playing music, genuinely enjoying our company and appreciation.
The set was structured with Fleet Foxes devotees in mind -- classics interspersed with fragments of the new record, usually a few songs' worth. The strings of their newer songs were replaced with either a horn or a flute, but they were played with such skill that no one seemed to miss their presence. The horn also perfectly captured the essence of some of the tenser songs on Crack-Up, while the flute -- for example, at the end of Mearcstapa -- allowed for beautiful extended motifs.
There was a notably heartfelt moment about halfway through the set: responding to the impassioned and impatient calls of fans, he said "I love you guys," and then threw them a bone with Battery Kinzie. It seemed the typically reverent Kansas City crowd couldn't let the theater go silent for Fleet Foxes. The obvious climax, however, came as a sucker-punch after the relaxed If You Need To, Keep Time on Me. The sucker-punch, of course, was named Mykonos. Towards the end of the song, Pecknold let the harmonies take over, and the roaring crowd responded with their own rendition. The honorable mention was Third of May which came short after, cheekily teased beforehand with the guitar part to the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun. The set, pre-encore, ended on a high note with Helplessness Blues, whose lyrics are particularly telling of the spirit of a Fleet Foxes performance:
"And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me"
That something, on that night, was one hell of an experience. The quote speaks to Pecknold's humility onstage, as well; he gladly takes the limelight, but does not bask in it. He's not so naive as to believe that he's the star of the show. He knows that the real reason the fans go wild is because they see themselves in his music -- it speaks to them. Coming back for an encore, Pecknold was alone with his guitar. The crowd waited, again impatiently, imploring him to play this song or another. He candidly responded, "I hear what you're saying, and I respect your position, but I no longer know how to play that song," and began Oliver James through the laughter of the crowd. The rendition solicited the crowd to clap along, unprompted, for the final chorus. He finished off the show with the rest of the band on Crack-Up, ending with a delicate, somnolent composition with a droning synth and arpeggiating piano striking softly in the distance.
I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar
- Naiads, Cassadies
On Another Ocean (January / June)
He Doesn’t Know Why
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
If You Need To, Keep Time on Me
White Winter Hymnal
Third of May / Odaigahara
The Shrine / An Argument
Blue Ridge Mountains