Technical issues and weather caused Slow Runner to open behind schedule, but soon impressed the audience with a delicious indie sound reminiscent of Ben Folds, Ben Gibbard and Jack's Mannequin, though stylistically distinct with light electronic influences. Michael Flynn's vocals were heartbreakingly sunny in navigating break-up songs, as well as a few up-tempo, bitter "I'm-better-without-you" tunes. The crowd swayed and bobbed along in quiet contemplation.
Slow Runner returned when William Fitzsimmons took the stage and served as his backup band for most of the night. "Passion Play," from 2005's Until When We Are Ghosts, topped the set and featured finger-plucked, hammer-ons and hushed vocals. The crowd stood enraptured as Fitzsimmons's breathy sound swirled around them. Many mouthed the words of "Beautiful Girl," which Fitzsimmons played with passion and annunciated nuance.
After, Fitzsimmons joked that the night would be filled with songs old and new alike, and that he would do his best to point out the new ones from 2011's Gold in the Shadow because all the songs "sound the same." The audience laughed and bantered with Fitzsimmons, who kept up the shtick, declaring, "I'm kind of a big deal" and launched into the first song he ever wrote, "Find It In Me." Slow Runner's Jonathan Gray added a wonderful country element with tightly plucked banjo and vocal accents. The chorus culminated with the band harmonizing, "I hope you find it, 'cause I could not find it in me."
Before "Tide Pulls from the Moon" Gray looked at multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaler, then gave Fizsimmons a loving high-five and said, "Let's fucking do this." The song bounced along with brushed drums, electric guitar and light keys. The crowd was awestruck by the single's tidal intensity. Slow Runner left the stage as Fitzsimmons played "If You Would Come Back Home," from 2009's The Sparrow and the Crow. Fitzsimmons' delivery was clear, deliberate and quietly confident. His vocals and guitar picking crept over the dumbstruck crowd.
Slow Runner returned to the stage for "Bird of Winter Prey." Kaler backed Fitzsimmons with shimmering pedal steel: The sliding wail added an indelible moonglow to the already perfect track. Jocular and self-deprecating as he bantered, Fitzsimmons told the crowd that many of the songs on his new record are about "breaking the downward spiral of life," and that he wrote them purposefully without metaphor because he didn't want to "hide behind poetic bullshit." More right he could not be. The audience clearly appreciated such candor in the face of his melancholy music.
The set continued with "Blood and Bones," a love song about commitment and steadfastness, which featured more lovely banjo and pedal steel. The audience gasped through a crystalline rendition of the popular "Everything Has Changed." "After Afterall" offered up dreamy guitar and the heart-wrenching inversion on the aphorism "till death do us part." After the song, a joking Fitzsimmons asked the crowd if they were sufficiently mellow (they were), compared himself to a "big ol' bearded marijuana joint, but sadder," and began picking "Just Not Each Other," which culminated in the loudest moment of the evening with crashing drums and bass.
The singer prefaced "I Don't Feel It Anymore (Song of the Sparrow)" by saying it was about a conversation between birds. The set concluded with "Winter From Your Leaving," showcasing Slow Runner's mandolin and banjo. The entire four-piece band (including Fitzsimmons) moved center stage barbershop quartet style and harmonized for the last chorus.
After a moment off stage, Fitzsimmons returned and asked the audience what they wanted to hear for the first encore. Many offered suggestions, but Fitzsimmons settled on "Funeral Dress." The song induced shivers with diligent hammer-ons and washed over the crowd with palpable power and energy. "Fade and then Return" glowed with pulsing bass, keys and driving kick drum that lent the song a subdued techno vibe as it ebbed and flowed. For the last tune, Fitzsimmons and Slow Runner descended into the crowd and played an unplugged, entirely acoustic version of "Goodmorning." With its crowd captured by wonder, rarely has the Firebird stood so enraptured.
After his set, Fitzsimmons hung out on the floor of the Firebird with the doting stragglers shooting the breeze, signing autographs and smiling for pictures. His humble demeanor and respect for his fans was refreshingly warm for such an accomplished artist. St. Louis, thrilled to have William Fizsimmons for the evening, awaits his return.