Vampire Weekend play crowd-pleasing set to a packed First Avenue

Categories: Concert Review
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Photo by Terry Filsetti Yoshinaga
You know a band has to be quite confident in their material when the drummer is sporting a jersey of the worst team in pro basketball. And, if you're Vampire Weekend, why not be self-assured; your recent album went to #1 on the charts and you have a string of sold-out shows around the world and back again. Their crowd-pleasing set at a very sold-out First Avenue on Monday night went over well amongst their devoted fans, but while their feel-good songs are all rather uplifting, they ultimately lack both a spark and a spirit to make them truly memorable. The sound in the club was impeccable, and the five chandeliers the band installed above the stage added a nice touch of class to the proceedings, but ultimately the material and stage banter seemed all-too-well rehearsed, and the music lacked any punch or soul to really distinguish one track from the next. The crowd ate it up, of course, and my thoughts about the show were clearly in the minority afterwords. But to me, the songs came off as rather innocuous and safe; pleasant sounding, sure, but fundamentally monochrome and detached.

The show kicked off with a couple songs from the aforementioned #1 album Contra, with "White Sky" and "Holiday" failing to really catch a spark with a crowd that clearly preferred the older material from their self-titled debut. So a four song run of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," "I Stand Corrected," "M79" (one of my favorite songs of the night, which featured an "aggressive but hopeful" crowd singalong) and "Bryn" clearly got the crowd engaged. The auto-tune aided "California English" built on that momentum a bit, before the band dimmed the lights and slowed things down with a stark version of "Taxi Cab," which found drummer Chris Tomson coming out front to play on a drum machine while bassist Chris Baio played a stand-up for the restrained and somber number. Ezra Koenig's vocals rang true all night long, as did his subtly dexterous guitar work, and he proved to be quite an affable frontman throughout the performance. But multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij made the cliched cardinal sin at First Ave by mentioning "you know we're in the house that Prince built," before dedicating "Run" to "the Purple One." Rookie mistake, fellas, but you're young, we'll forgive you.

Koenig joked that "dancing is not easy, that's a given...for me. At least shake an ankle to this one" before the band played a spirited version of "A-Punk" that was another of the night's highlights. He also referenced the bands previous visit to Minneapolis, a buzzed-about performance at the Triple Rock almost exactly two years ago that I was fortunate enough to attend. While the show was a good one, it was only a 40-minute set. Thankfully, the band have expanded their set a bit, and delivered a 75-minute, 18-song set that was worthy of a headliner. I was intrigued by the direction VW took their sound on "Diplomat's Son," using a sampled loop effectively over a middle eastern rhythm and bouncy, staccato melody. The band was experimenting on this one, stepping outside the comfort zone that most of their songs easily reside in, and it was a sprawling, intriguing revelation. Hopefully the band takes more chances like this in the future, for it certainly caught my attention. "Giving Up The Gun" continues this theme of adventurous sonic experimentation, and I was disappointed that it unfortunately went unplayed during the set.

Koenig teased a few strains of "Purple Rain" before dedicating "Campus" to "anyone in school" (loud cheers), "especially graduate school (hardly any cheers)." "Campus" flowed right into the dynamic main set closer "Oxford Comma," which found the crowd and Koenig alike yelling fuck at the top of their lungs. It's a fun song, as are most of Vampire Weekend's material, and clearly the crowd was elevated by the proceedings. I just was (perhaps mistakenly) looking for something deeper with a bit more heart. I didn't find it on the first song of their encore, the rather insipid "Horchata," which nonetheless resonated well with the crowd, who have obviously grown quite familiar with the overplayed song over the last couple of months. "Mansard Roof" breezed by quickly, before the band ended the show with the customary fervor of "Walcott," which really is impossible not to love. It's such an ebullient song, and really ended the night strongly and left everyone smiling as they left the club. I'm curious as to the direction Vampire Weekend choose to take their sound in the future, and perhaps a change in direction will engross me a bit more. But with a run of success that VW have been on as of late, and with packed houses awaiting them in every city, why would they even bother messing with a formula that is obviously working?
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