On a gorgeous Saturday evening in Columbia, Maryland, Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective made us feel like we were back in 2011 as they played fan favorites and newer, equally impressive material to a raucously appreciative crowd.
Despite concerns that the threat of thunderstorms would keep audiences away, both the pavilion and lawn were densely packed and for once, the clouds parted and rain held off at Merriweather Post Pavilion. That was amusingly a first for this author, who has experienced a series of soaking (if memorable) evenings at the open-air venue over the last few years. It was a few hours of respite for a crowd that ran the gamut of age and gender, if unfortunately not race – but it would be naive to expect that either of these bands would draw many people of color. While 2017 has been a national nightmare, let’s not forget that Trump sashayed into office on the backs of well-intentioned #whitepeople (with scraggly neckbeards and wolf tattoos).
Animal Collective played a mesmeric and challenging set – as usual – that included “Summertime Clothes” and “Daily Routine”, hits from their most popular album yet, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, named after (but not recorded at) this very venue. Sadly, there was no sign of “My Girls”, and while artists don’t owe it to us to play their biggest jams every time, it would have been nice to have a banger of a track to cut through the cacophony of loops, squiggles, and percussion. The quartet have seemingly leaned into the weird, and rising pools of cheers from the audience showed that most folks were clearly grooving to what was floating out of the speakers. The on-screen visuals and the swirling blue and pink cotton candy sky certainly would have made for a treat for anyone on psychedelics – a seemingly natural pairing for AnCo’s mood that evening. Amusingly, Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold walked through the MPP lawn during Animal Collective’s set and blended into the crowd with ease, only giving up the ghost when a few eagle-eyed observers recognized him and asked for photos – but even then, he was largely unbothered. It’s amazing what a haircut and shave (and five years out of the spotlight) can do.
Fleet Foxes came on precisely at 9 p.m., the opening notes of the show bellowed out by a four-piece horn section as the three part “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” suite played out in front of watercolor visuals. The music was rich and full, a lot more vibrant than the somewhat thin quality of the recording on the album, and from the get-go it was clear that this band was here to put on a ferocious performance. Fortunately, the subtleties and nuances that have earned this band accolades wasn’t lost. Much, much credit is due to the sound engineers and audio technicians supporting the band, as well as to the quality of the sound system at Merriweather. I hope there’s an audio recording of last night’s performance out there, and that the Fleet Foxes are considering their own tongue-in-cheek Merriweather Post Pavilion.
I’d argue that in the hands of less talented artists, the music the Fleet Foxes make could easily slip into a river of self importance and pastoral tropes – hymns for millennials consumed with reconnecting with the protestant work ethic and the pioneer spirit. The soundtrack to carving your own place in the world out of reclaimed wood, and then selling it at Restoration Hardware. In a way, it’s the very genesis for the stage persona adopted by their most famous former member – I doubt that we’d have Father John Misty, the anti-hero and winking ringleader, if Josh Tillman hadn’t spent a few years in direct proximity of Robin Pecknold’s earnestness.
The truth is that other acts have succumbed to the intoxicating fragrance of their own farts while lacking even a fraction of the skill; look no further than the crumbled careers of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. But this band is immune because they are simply so good. I have rarely seen a group be so attuned to each other, on record and on stage, and by the second song all my cynicism had melted away. Pecknold delivers his lines with such sincere feeling, enthusiasm, and emotion that his music is undeniable. His band mates – the spirit to Pecknold’s soul – perfectly complement and augment every word he sings, and it’s clear that a five-year hiatus has served to mature and improve all of the elements of this band.