Live: Vampire Weekend at the Bowery Ballroom
Tuesday, January 29
Way #373 to feel old: when opening band Beat the Devil keeps cracking jokes about the crowd being jailbait, then wish their drummer a happy 22nd birthday. They're still not wrong. The sense of all-inclusive occasion surrounding Vampire Weekend's January 29th album release party at the Bowery Ballroom is underscored when the houselights dim part-way and I am nudged aside by a camera dude, who bares his digicam above the crowd like a stoic human tripod. There are at least three others like him in the stage's wings and in the balcony (plus auxiliary mixing technicians next to the soundboard).
The sold-out show, the first of two, is something of a send-off for the happily collegiate quartet. That, or a Viking funeral. The hype having done its job—a label (XL), an album (Vampire Weekend), and a piece in the New York Times Sunday Styles section all secured—it is time for Vampire Weekend to get to the business of being a band. Their mothers are in attendance. By the time they make it to the stage, the camera dude's shoulders are slumping slightly, and he holds his gear at shoulder-level.
On the night's second song, "I Stand Corrected," Vampire Weekend shows their hand. Plenty has been made of the group's Graceland/Afro-pop/yadda-yadda influences—which are not insignificant—but the band Vampire Weekend perhaps most resembles is another outfit from Manhattan's Upper West Side: the Strokes. Besides a common vocabulary made of sturdy guitar stabs and laconic sexual negotiations, the two quartets share a privileged swagger. Though the Vampires remain more polite musically and conceptually—indeed, guitarist/singer Ezra Koenig takes to the stage in a purple cardigan that appears embroidered with eagles—their stance is actually far more radical than the Strokes' age-old punk slumming.
It is not so much that Vampire Weekend frequently sing about being rich as they make music that channels the warmth and security that goes along with it. Who doesn't like comfort? Their references to African guitar pop, instantly obvious in the gallop of the show-opening "Mansard Roof," are not so much a channeling of third world elegance as a first world soundtrack to weekends in the Hamptons drinking white wine. "As a young girl, Louis Vuitton," Koenig sings on "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," the third tune of the 13-song set, his natural pronunciation of "Vuitton" as telling as the contrasts of its title. The between-verse synth-harpsichord breaks by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij that recall Wes Anderson soundtracks don't hurt either.
Admittedly, it can be a fun fantasy to sink into, especially for a crowd whose memories of the '80s are woozy at best, if they literally exist at all. But it is also a little troublesome, at least if there any strands of egalitarianism left in indie rock. After all, how entitled does one have to be sing about being bored at Cape Cod? Vampire Weekend doesn't address the question, but sing about it anyway, on "Wolcott," the encore's final song—and perhaps their very best hook—which is received with apeshit pogoing. "In the afternoon, you're out on the stolen grass, and I'm sleeping on the balcony after class," Koenig sings earlier on "Campus," a milder statement of the concept, and as pleasant a conception of happiness as any.
But, if it doesn't make one want to saw his own arm off with a copy of Capeman, it can all be quite charming. At the Bowery, Koenig bops like a Fab while drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio lean into grooves grown more from the naiveté necessary to channel Afro-pop than from the Afro-pop itself. They feel surprisingly durable, as do Koenig's melodies, which can linger for weeks, like a guiltily snacked-upon bag of chocolate chips. Vampire Weekend's recordings suggest a certain preciousness that, like the Shins, might only translate into a thin-sounding stage act. Live, Vampire Weekend is another beast entirely. Still precious, the songs hold up, the kids dig 'em, and it all only adds to a gnawing suspicion that they may, in fact, be real. Shit.