It had been almost five years since Fleet Foxes had played live in London, but on their long-awaited return they felt right at home; before they even started playing, figurehead Robin Pecknold was joking jovially with the crowd in a personable manner, like old friends reconnecting. The last time they were in the capital, the Seattle band had played back-to-back nights at the 5000-capacity Brixton Academy, so the 900-capacity Islington Assembly Hall was positively snug. The show was announced just a few weeks ago; a gift for fans who had been dying to see them since the release of their 2020 album Shore and a chance for the band to warm up before playing to a significantly larger crowd the next day at All Points East in Victoria Park.
Despite the relative intimacy of the venue, Fleet Foxes played with the same gusto and volume they brought to their festival slot the next day, with Pecknold joined on stage by eight others to provide the cornucopia of sounds heard in the band’s music. For the opening song, “Wading In The Waist-High Water”, they were also joined by Uwade, who guests on the recorded version of the song and has been opening for the band on tour. Her soulful-yet-light voice opened the set over the punchy rumbling of the band like dawn on a new day, the horn blasts the sounds of the world stirring.
From there, Pecknold led the charge through the opening trio from Shore, the radiant happiness of “Sunblind” shimmering across the audience to be followed by the emphatic “Can I Believe You”, the singer’s classic brogue augmented by the towering arrangements. Fleet Foxes have evidently fine-tuned their set list, and following the opening salvo they swooped back to their origin, playing numbers from their 2008 self-titled debut. During the pristine trio of “Ragged Wood”, the flute-augmented “Your Protector” and “He Doesn’t Know Why”, the band proved that they’re not only sparkling musicians, but that they are able to play them while pulling off dynamite harmonies – the calling card for those early Fleet Foxes songs. They were as laser-beam focused on this night as they were 14 years ago when Pecknold and his scrappy blog hype band were first plying their trade and breaking through to new audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
A nice surprise came in the middle of the night when Fleet Foxes decided to throw in “Phoenix”, the song that Pecknold recorded with Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s Big Red Machine project, which made for a palette-cleansing pop moment amid the more strident art rock fare that dominated the evening. A master of mood at this point in his career, Pecknold guided the audience through the second half of the set, riding high on the finale of the ebullient classic “Mykonos”, where almost everyone on stage sang in harmony, before dismissing his bandmates momentarily for a couple of stripped-back songs.
While he has long been a confident solo performer and carved out time to sing alone during Fleet Foxes shows, his performances on this night seemed particularly special. Perhaps because of the relative intimacy of the venue, or perhaps it is just more years of experience making him a more magnetic presence, you could hear a pin drop throughout the solo “Montezuma”. This was followed by a collective holding of breath during the spellbinding cover of Judee Sill’s “The Kiss”, where his tender tones were subtly supported by mournful brass. When he invited the rest of the band back on stage, it felt a bit like a bubble being burst.
That feeling didn’t last long, as the band’s regal combination treated us to bigger, bolder and more beautiful versions of more old favourites, culminating in the life-affirming landslide that is “Grown Ocean”. At that point, with everyone in the audience dripping with sweat (not to mention Pecknold himself, with his hat he refused to remove), nobody would have felt short-changed if the house lights had gone up.
But Pecknold and co were keen to use up as much time as they could, humidity be damned. They returned post-break to play “The Shrine”, one of Fleet Foxes’ most rousing songs and a kick in the pants to any audience members who were starting to feel tired. Uwade was invited back out to join for a couple more Shore deep cuts, allowing Pecknold to take a back seat while she showed off her truly ethereal and deeply comforting . As she intoned the final words of “Going-to-the-sun Road” in Portuguese, Pecknold beaming behind her, it felt like a gentle ending to a long and glorious day.
However, Pecknold wasn’t going to leave without giving the crowd one final old favourite, the conspicuously missing “Helplessness Blues”. It’s been Fleet Foxes’ closer for a long time now, and it probably won’t be displaced soon, as it’s a perfect encapsulation of everything they do well: resplendent singalong melodies, vibrant harmonies, dynamic structure and – most importantly – leaves you feeling positive about the world, if only for a moment.