Fall weather rolled into New York City last week, just in time for Fleet Foxes’ victory-lap visit to the city in support of sophomore hit Helplessness Blues. An outdoor set at the Williamsburg Waterfront—it was supposed to be the perfect setting for these kings of beardo-folk-rock’s autumnal tunes. But Saturday showed up with disappointment: New York was cloudy, muggy and more evocative of July’s heatpocalypse than the crisp pastoral scenes that fill the Foxes’ brilliant-to-date output.
Opening act the Walkmen stepped onto the stage around 6:30, the band members looking suave with their blazers, slacks and vintage guitars. Drawing material from its six studio albums, the group played a 10-song set for a receptive hometown crowd. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser is much more reserved and low-key in the flesh than his voice sounds on tape, and the rest of his band is as rhythmically tight as it is all-business. In fact, the set’s only stage antic happened when a bashful little boy in a white suit came out between songs to deliver the band members cans of Brooklyn Lager, drawing a massive awwww from the crowd. (He then retreated to the stage-right wing and played air-guitar for the rest of the set.)
The Walkmen held its own, but all during the set, the audience’s attention shifted back and forth between the band onstage and the sunset that was blazing, orange and gold, behind the Manhattan skyline on the river’s opposite bank. “That was just about the most perfect way to watch the Walkmen,” Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold would later remark. “Like a Woody Allen movie or something.”
When Fleet Foxes came on—wearing beards instead of blazers—the sun had set, and the video screen behind the stage changed to a scrolling bed of stars that was probably the best night sky New York has seen post-1900. Pecknold gave his nod to the Walkmen, and Fleet Foxes launched into the Helplessness Blues epic “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” hitting the five-part intro harmonies with pitch-perfect clarity. For the set’s entirety, Pecknold’s voice was crisp and pure, cutting through the mix with a presence that you seldom hear at outdoor shows.
Up next was “Mykonos,” which provided one of the more chills-inducing moments of the night when the crowd joined in at the song’s climax, belting, “You go wherever you go today.” Come to think of it, that might’ve been the concert’s most pleasant surprise: You might expect audience participation to spoil harmonies as pretty as Fleet Foxes’, but, Saturday night, it only added to the effect, turning the concert into something of a winsome, modern-day folk revival.
Fleet Foxes hit all of the now-canonical highlights—“Ragged Wood,” “Your Protector,” “Blue Ridge Mountains”—and played the new stuff with the added gusto that live performances bring. (The “Sunlight over me no matter what I do” line from “The Shrine/An Argument” never sounded so powerful.) The band members, loose in spirits with nothing left to prove to the faithful Williamsburg audience, joked about brunch and New York pizza between songs and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the attention of people watching from balconies on the high-rise apartments adjacent to the concert site.
The encore closed with—what else—”Helplessness Blues,” and, as the band walked off-stage, an Irish jig played over the main speakers while the words, “GOOD LUCK IN THE REST OF YOUR LIVES,” splashed across the stage’s backdrop. Right back at’cha, Fleet Foxes. Right back at’cha.