"Why in the night sky are the lights hung?/Why is the Earth moving around the Sun?"
So many questions, so few answers. At the Chicago Theatre on Friday in the first of two-sold-out concerts, Robin Pecknold and his band Fleet Foxes stood in front of a backdrop that suggested an infinite, star-lit sky or mountains blanketed by snow, images that can make regular humans feel mighty small.
It would've been an appropriate setting for some intimate, guitar-strumming campfire music. But Fleet Foxes had greater ambitions.
Pecknold is a bearded, 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Seattle who sings about feeling humbled and awed. The band's modest demeanor extended to awkward silences between songs; though they are filling larger venues than ever, Fleet Foxes' stage patter still hasn't climbed out of the practice space.
Once the band dug into a song, its personality grew wide-eyed with wonder. Mandolin, bass, fiddle and guitars wrapped the songs in a lattice-work of stringed instruments. Joshua Tillman orchestrated drums and various percussion nick-knacks into musical parts that shaded the lyrics and embellished the songs' emotional colors. Multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson added flute and saxophone.
In the last year, the band has toughened up as an instrumental force, stepping into bigger spaces with canny use of dynamics – from near-stillness to stirring crescendos. They affirmed that prowess at the Pitchfork Music Festival last July, commanding Union Park in a far different way than they had in 2008 when the performance was all about their hushed interplay and stunning vocal harmonies.
The band's latest material lent itself to flexing that newfound muscle, particularly rollercoaster rides such as "The Shrine/An Argument," an eight-minute summation of all things Fleet Foxes: finger-picked acoustic guitars seguing into furious drum volleys and organ drone, punctuated by a skronking saxophone that suggested the spirit of Ornette Coleman had drifted in from the rafters.
On Friday, the lustrous counterpoint vocal melodies that first established the band's reputation were once again at the forefront. A cappella harmonies are a rare thing at many rock concerts – most bands don't have the firepower or the confidence to pull them off consistently. But they're a crucial part of Fleet Foxes' arsenal, producing a half-dozen moments when the audience seemed to hold its collective breath as the sextet's voices turned the theater into a cathedral.
For the encore, Pecknold re-emerged from the wings alone to play an unusually direct and angry song about a betrayal. Then it was back to musing on the cosmos with his bandmates.
The world leaves him "tongue-tied and dizzy," Pecknold sang in "Helplessness Blues." Van Morrison once dubbed that condition the "inarticulate speech of the heart," and what a beautiful malady it is.
Fleet Foxes set list Friday at the Chicago Theatre:
1 The Plains/Bitter Dancer
3 English House
4 Battery Kinzie
5 Bedouin Dress
6 Sim Sala Bim
7 Your Protector
8 White Winter Hymnal
9 Ragged Wood
11 He Doesn't Know Why
13 The Shrine/An Argument
14 Blue Spotted Tail
15 Grown Ocean
16 I Let You
17 Sun It Rises
18 Blue Ridge Mountains
19 Helplessness Blues