Blitzen Trapper and Fleet Foxes were just too much buzz for Black Cat's Backstage. They should have been playing upstairs. With their third self-released album, "Wild Mountain Nation," rootsy, lo-fi slack-rockers Blitzen Trapper was one of the most talked about underground groups of 2007. And with its debut full-length on the way, Fleet Foxes is getting a lot of that chatter in 2008 and was a good pairing with the headliner. Both bands are on Sub Pop, now, and they've taken their little next big thing on Sub Pop showcase on the road.
Roots rock references abound in stories and conversations about Blitzen Trapper, but the band's genre hopping and blending go so far beyond that. No matter the genre, the songs all were awash in the lo-fi slacker rock aesthetic. The band opened with "Devil's a Go-Go," a southern rocker with nods to alt-country. Unpredictable and almost jittery riffs led to minor explosions throughout, like the band was building to a rock out but only teased in the end. Then the set quickly changed gear -- as it often did -- and singer/guitarist Eric Earley performed the classic "Cocaine Blues" alone and acoustic, a folky reading true to the song. But only half the set was dedicated to such rootsy material. "The Green King Sings" was the first song to conjure early-'70s glam, like something T. Rex might have tried if that band wasn't so informed by classic Motown-style R&B and soul. Blitzen Trapper returned to a country style for the lonely ballad "Summer Town," which demonstrated the group's knack for pop songwriting. But it was back to glam rock for "Murder Babe," which, like "The Green King Sings," employed some hair-metal riffing, though hidden behind the rest of the instrumentation. Nothing spread as much glitter as "Sci-Fi Kid," though, the band's most pleasant and straightforward rocker, despite space-rock ambience appropriate for a song named as such.
As a sextet, there was of course a great deal of instrument arranging going on, and most guys in the band hopped from instrument to instrument, often from song to song. In addition to bass and drums, there were guitars electric and acoustic, keys, synth, harmonica, and all sorts of percussion. As a result, no one instrument ever really stood apart, except when the band played sparse numbers and let Earley's picking and singing take center stage. "Wild Mountain Nation" and "Country Caravan" demonstrated the band's penchant for stoner country songs that might sit well with Deadheads that can move past the quirky arrangements and lo-fi feel. And just as soon as the crowd was in that mellow mood again, Blitzen Trapper turned the tables yet again with the snarling, crunchy rocker, "Miss Spiritual Tramp." On the oddball rave up "Woof & Warp at the Quiet of the Giant's Hem," the band tried one more trick -- mid-'90s indie prog reminiscent of the Flaming Lips at their most irreverent. After leaving the stage briefly, Blitzen Trapper returned without their drummer, who apparently wasn't informed about the encore. He had gone back stage, into the bar and into the back of Backstage, where he stood by the soundboard as he watched his mates climb back up. Slightly dumbfounded, he retraced his steps and made it in time for one more country number, leaving the crowd with the vibe the first couple of songs mistakenly predicted.
Fleet Foxes would have been well worth the ticket alone. Like Blitzen Trapper, the band is well aware of rock and pop music's roots, but they take a chamber pop approach. While the band members looked and sometimes sounded more like hippies than the guys in Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes seemed more in tune with '60s baroque pop by the likes of the Beach Boys and the Zombies than with jam bands. Frontman Robin Pecknold's beautiful voice, sounding like something off early-'70s AM radio, is the centerpiece of the band's sound, and they weren't afraid to show off a little vocal harmonizing. The title track to the band's "Sun Giant" EP was done a capella as it is on record, and it was amazing to hear those voices soar through the room. Why mess with success and bog the song down with instruments? They sounded like the male counterparts to the sirens from "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" "English House" was a beautiful journey of a song -- a perfect example of the complex compositions Fleet Foxes makes seem easy. Following that, "White Winter Hymnal" betrayed the band's Beach Boys infatuation, particularly the infatuation with Brian Wilson's more downbeat work. Actually, that wintry sound recalled another upstart in independent music: Bon Iver. At its quietest, Fleet Foxes played a similar cold and lonely kind of folk music. The band Fleet Foxes most reminisced, though, was Crosby, Stills and Nash, but for the second to last song, a little Young was in order. Again, the band put its pretty vocals up front, but the song was like a more ambient version of one of the subdued Neil songs you'd find on "Decade."
Both bands played a lot of familiar material from their most recent releases, but with Sub Pop full lengths on the way -- Fleet Foxes' debut LP is slated for a June release while word has it Blitzen Trapper is looking at a new release in September -- they work-shopped plenty of new stuff, too. Judging from this show, I'd say there are at least two Sub Pop albums that'll be essential purchases in 2008.