Everything happened so quickly I still have to recover from the surprise.
From the first time I heard Fleet Foxes to being in front of the stage photographing their live London concert, just a week went by.
In this short period I came across countless reviews of their homonymous debut.
I can’t name a single one who hasn’t praised this album less then wonderful. Innumerable stars, coming from journalists of any background, ridiculed milky way count on a bright summer night.
My curiosity was turned on, my legendary scepticism followed short after.
I rushed to listen to what is available on myspace, not the best way to approach music, nonetheless the cheapest and quickest, considering the miraculous debut album wasn’t going to be out in time for the gig.
I admit I wasn’t particularly impressed by those tracks but considering I am rarely seduced by music streaming via PC and with all those flattering articles in mind, I was still convinced to go and see them live.
Just over an hour of their music and everything changed. Fact is, Fleet Foxes concert astonished and captured the sold out ULU with a flawless, breathtaking set.
The US answer to Canada seems to have rooted once again in Seattle and once again SubPop is controlling the blossom. If this is not enough coincidence, Neil Young is at the heart of this wave…once again!
If “grunge” epitomized Neil Young electric facet, this emerging new folk-rock scene, eradicated in the white North American musical roots, takes its inspiration from Neil Young acoustic works.
Put as simple as this is a very restricted view of the full frame. Most of white American music must be included in the picture to complete the landscape, including the borders with Canada that revealed to be a semi-permeable membrane which allows a continuous music flow into Northern States. A sort of “musical osmosis”, that goes beyond the barriers of time and space, is producing refreshing new cocktails. If you drive coast to coast along the Canadian borders these days, you come upon the hometown of one of the best modern music realities roughly every 50 miles.
At the ULU doors leaflets are already announcing a new Shepherd Bush date for Fleet Foxes in November. Inside the venue, before the start, tenths of people are queuing to buy Fleet Foxes the album and Sun Giant, the EP.
These are notable signs, considering the material on offer daily, Londoners have reasons to be choosy.
Stubborn and sceptical, I decide I want to listen to the gig before investing my money on the album. It is so good from the first song that I am prophetic enough to decide to head to the merchandise stall to get my hands on both the CD and EP (and a free poster) before the end. Just a couple of minutes more and the queue would have been long enough to have missed my last train home.
The five pieces come on stage and singer guitarist, Robin Pecknold, goes something like “good evening, we are U2”, from the crowd someone shouts “play Sunday bloody Sunday!”, Robin quickly answers “Don’t worry we’re gonna play all our hits tonight” while guitarist sketched few notes of The Edge’s riff with a folky sound. It’s fun from the start.
Apparently to form a rock band in the States today, long hair and beards are as essential as guitars. More useful to produce music, the rest of the stage is filled with keyboards, bass, drums acoustic and electric guitar. A classic line-up but what catches your attention from the first song is the singing performed by everyone but the electric guitarist which is fully dedicated in generating his peculiar sound by means of pedals and even a Page-ian bow.
An almost a-cappella version of Sun Giant kicks off the show, it is instantly clear we’re not going to miss U2 tonight.
With vocal harmonies borrowed from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young legacy; the songs have an ethereal folky feel that all of a sudden can burst into sonic slashes of reverber. Quiet pastoral passages crisscrossed with choral organ chords have a Sunday solemn mass feel.
Despite I have been dubious since My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire opened indie-rock to baroque harmonies and highly structured arrangements, I have to admit the trend is becoming more and more alluring and excellent bands are joining the company.
Where Band of Horses seduced me with a wonderful electric concert, Fleet Foxes acoustic rendition of the same theme seems to make it even better.
A sophisticated result from a simple formula, as it usually happens with good albums. It starts from the music they confess to love and, with a modern vision of the scene, moves away from there to sound at the same time warm and refreshing.
From the discordant opener Sun it Rises, which puts together echoes of Beach Boys infusing drops of cheery pop into lakes of Joni Mitchell melancholy to the wonderful closer Oliver James that recalls CSN&Y and Simon and Garfunkel singing, among their songs there are already instant classics as I would define pearls as White Winter Hymnal, Quite Houses or the wonderful Mikonos and English House selected for the debut EP Sun Giant.
You can argue part of such an ecstatic view is because I am mirroring my long hair and beard into this five guys’ music, and I wouldn’t argue with you on this, but undeniably listening to Band of Horses, Grand Archives and Fleet Foxes I truly believe SubPop has found a new gold mine for the future of indie music.
As a related observation, this curiously clashes with the SubPop strategy to support the return of Mudhoney or the formation of a band as Gutter Twins that compared to their label mates instantly sound just a tardy attempt to resurrect an outdated decade while rock music is well ready for to the next.
2010 is not too far and, if the nineties were dominated by electric Seattle and the beginning of this century has been characterised by American bands playing with an English sound (Strokes, Interpol, Killers…), I envisage in the next future American rock will be dedicated to rediscover its white roots. Groups as Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and more to come are clearly leading this scene and indicating the pathway is linked to the music, the life, the fields and the animals of their ancestors. Foxes included.
The Bar of student unions is a classic British place to put up a rock stage for emerging bands. Any UK university has one, the biggest the university the most important the concerts that are happening in there.
University of London Students Union, as known as ULU, has reached such a fame that is now part of the established London venues circuit, hosting several big acts weekly.
The interesting bit is that these places preserve that students mood even when the entire audience left university ages before or still has to start it. This includes a chatty and cosy atmosphere, relatively cheap drinks, vending machines and loads of chairs, tables and sofas to relax before the gig.
The negative bit is that these places resist to adapt, from an area thought for few students relaxing after a hard studying session, to a place packed up with rock fans.
In particular ULU problems include extreme heat, no photographers’ pit and the resulting struggle to get to the front row even if Fleet Foxes folk-ish crowd is laid-back.
The impossibility of moving along the stage to try different angles and the sweaty conditions got worse with a heavy bag and two cameras hanging from my neck, to the point that I left that position after the ritual 3 songs and moved upstairs to explore the balcony.
It proved to be a good move, despite there was as crowded as the stalls, I managed to sit on the aisle right to the front and use it as a privileged position for some panoramic shots.
On a 35mm size a 70mm lens is the perfect length to frame the whole stage. I used anything from a 50mm to a 135mm to get some close ups. There you have the additional advantage to exploit the front barrier to avoid camera shakes.
If you are going to photograph at the ULU, my suggestion is to bring with you a range of lenses to overcome both the no-pit situations and to move upstairs to take some snaps from the balcony.
Results pay back even if they cannot compete with the feeling of being back to university. Unfortunately it lasts just a couple of hours, the pictures much longer though.