Last month, Fleet Foxes front man Robin Pecknold asked, “How is aging going for everybody” on his Facebook page. Now that he has entered his thirties, Pecknold is no longer the young upstart who helped transform indie music nearly a decade ago. The success of his first Fleet Foxes LP (2008) came during a resurgence of neo-folk that included acts such as Iron & Wine, Blitzen Trapper, Real Estate and Grizzly Bear. Featuring gorgeous harmonies, fragile melodies and naturalistic imagery, the music of Fleet Foxes defined a time and place. After the Grammy-nominated sophomore album, Helplessness Blues (2011), Pecknold retreated from the limelight, teaching classes in Portland, spending time in monasteries and enrolling at Columbia University. The same restless spirit that defined Pecknold’s best music now pulled him away from his songs.

Six years is a long time between records, but Fleet Foxes surprised fans earlier this year when they announced that their third record, Crack-Up, would drop this June on Nonesuch. In early March, the band released the first single, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” a nine-minute track that pushed beyond the sonic experimentation Pecknold and company began during Helplessness Blues. At its heart a folk song, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is a beautiful, if somewhat weary release that signaled a strong return for the band.

In advance of Crack-Up, the band scheduled a host of “intimate” dates in its native Pacific Northwest. After stops in Missoula and Spokane, the band played Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, a vast club that belies the word “intimate” unless you are comparing it to some of the outdoor sheds the group will be visiting this summer. The sold-out crowd bristled with excitement as an announcer repeatedly warned that any sort of recording would not be tolerated. A flashing sign behind the stage welcomed concert-goers, claiming the band had missed its fans. Much of the audience was noticeably younger than 30, as if they had grown up with the myth of the Fleet Foxes and were now finally presented with the opportunity to see a group that had existed in shadows for more than half a decade.

I didn’t listen to Crack-Up before the show, allowing the concert to be my first experience of these songs. After the band wordlessly took the stage, they began the show with the first three tracks from the new album. I have seen Fleet Foxes numerous times, from opening for Blitzen Trapper on the second stage at the Black Cat in DC to the Crystal Ballroom. These three songs: “I Am All That I Need/ Arroyo Seco/ Thumbprint Scar,” “Cassius-,“ and “-Naiads, Cassadies” somehow pushed new boundaries for the band yet sounded rooted firmly at the beginning of the decade. The Fleet Foxes “sound” is undeniable. It is a combination of Pecknold as a songwriter and the mix of his vocals mix with those of bassist Christian Wargo and multi-instrumentalist Casey Wescott.

The crowd erupted with cheers when the band began “Grown Ocean” four songs in. However, the audience responded most to songs from the self-titled LP and Sun Giant, shouting and singing along to “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood” and “Your Protector.” Having these songs back in the concert-going consciousness feels good, as if some sort of beauty had been taken away when Pecknold went dark. The band was faithful to the album versions as “Mykonos” still sounded fresh and vital, but Pecknold did little to tinker with its beauty.

Pecknold interspersed new songs within the set rather than play Crack-Up straight through, letting the audience alternate between savoring old favorites and discovering new ones. After finishing the first set with the title cut from the new album, Pecknold returned to play a few songs solo, including “Blue Ridge Mountains.” The band closed out the concert together with a stirring version of “Helplessness Blues,” leaving the crowd stomping their feet and whistling for more. Pecknold may not have said much more than “thank you,” but the very fact he is on the stage again says plenty. I hope to be there when the band returns in September, ready to sing along to the new songs.

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