Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Vampire Weekend gets regal at the Fox

Posted By on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 5:01 PM

Vampire Weekend balance on a tricky tightrope in the world of independent music. The group shamelessly wears its Ivy League upbringing for all to see, and it embraces high-status Baroque influences with numerous harpsichord breakdowns. Yet it still manages to be one of the most skilled examples of synthesizing Afrobeat influences without sounding like a watered down King Sunny Ade.

The group's last album, Modern Vampires of the City, topped multiple year-end lists, but somehow Vampire Weekend still gets plastered as poster children of passive cultural appropriation, "avatars of bourgeois lameness," according to the New Yorker. Frontman Ezra Koening couldn't seem to care less. And neither did the screaming masses that packed out the Fox Theatre on May 5.

The NYC-bred foursome performed in probably the most bourgeois fashion imaginable, underneath four gigantic hanging Renaissance-style columns and in front of a Victorian floral background. Yet somewhere in the group's elegant aesthetic lies a subversive lining, first evidenced by its blue collar garage-punk touring buddies, Jacuzzi Boys.

These Miami-born rockers were a truly confusing pick as the group shares next to no similarities with VW, but like true hypemen, it managed to raise the formally dressed audience out of their seats and into a dancing fervor. Its Iggy Pop-wannabee style was captivating as openers, but it's hard to imagine the band sustaining interest through its own full-length set. The problem is that instead of wearing influences on its sleeve, Jacuzzi Boys wears them like a straightjacket, cutting off any chances of breaking free from the typical dive-bar rock idiom that's been pounded into the ground. At least it did a faithful job of filling out its role by bringing all the raucous energy expected of a three-piece rock band.

Roughly a half-hour after the Jacuzzi Boys exited (presumably into its backstage jacuzzis?) Vampire Weekend finally took the stage, but not before at least three mistaken bouts of applause for the forlorn sound guys.

The group's set opened like a gunshot at the starting line with the oddly surf-influenced "Diane Young," which could be interpreted as a breakup song or a cautionary tale on playing it safe, depending on your mood. From the track's first instrumental drop-out where Koening's voice was laid bare, it was clear that the fullness of the group's sound owes a great deal to stellar production values.

Many of VW's more recent songs rely on mood-setting textures from lush string arrangements that have been boxed into pre-recorded tracks live. With its continued commercial success, would it be that difficult to hire on a few string players?

The delicate, more ballad-like tracks of Modern Vampires, such as "Step," lost their endearing, fragile quality live. Instead of sounding like the band was walking on lily pads, it sounded more akin to slogging through mud to reach the finish. The Vampires reached a peak when the group slayed many of its more infectious songs from its self-titled debut, which relied more on the individual talents of the four members. "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" retained all of its laidback Afro-pop bliss, and the one-two punch of the driving "Campus" into the bouncy "Oxford Comma" was perfectly executed. Those songs have been performed to death but the group still played them like they had been written yesterday.

Koening's stage presence was cool, calm, always coy - often to a fault. Some of the breackneck energy of the more frantic tracks like "Cousins" and even "A-Punk" were lost through Koening's refusal to get wild and unpredictable. Oh yeah, and if there was one thing the set was, it was predictable.

For some people, predictable is good. It's not like Vampire Weekend is known for setting instruments on fire and stage diving, but it would certainly be nice to feel like I wasn't listening to really loud versions of the album. Predictability aside, the group still had a number of high points that kept the performance memorable. Koening's spitfire auto-tuned verses on "California English" were completely flawless, and maybe in another life he would have a promising rap career.

The band finished strong with the triple threat of "Hannah Hunt," "One (Blake's Got a New Face)," and "Walcott." I hope the real life Hannah Hunt was flattered by this track because it is absolutely gorgeous. Koening's vulnerable images of watching "crawling vines and weeping willows" with his beloved Hannah build to a heartbreaking chorus as keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij's tender piano plunks support Koening's final cries that "if [he] can't trust you, then dammit, Hannah, there's no future, there's no answer."

"Walcott," an exit song itself, perfectly closed out the performance as the crowd yelled along in unison for Walcott to get the hell out of Cape Cod tonight. Ultimately the show was pleasing enough and dotted with enough career-spanning hits to pacify fans, but everyone knows Vampire Weekend can do better than be "pleasing enough."

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