Vampire Weekend’s Breezy World

vampireIt wasn’t quite Labor Day Weekend, but it was Vampire Weekend.

The New York band was playing its first show at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., in nine years, as frontman Ezra Koenig recalled, and it was quite a different configuration. Multi instrumentalist and cofounder Rostam Batmanjlij split the group in 2016 following its last album, and in a seeming credit to him, had to be replaced by four musicians on stage: Garrett Ray, Will Canzoneri, Greta Morgan and Brian Robert Jones.

It was Jones trading guitar noodles that led to a big, sprawling “Sunflower” that opened the show — so big that you might think the brainy pop group had turned into a jam band. It was the first of 11 songs from the band’s latest album, “Father of the Bride” which got a heavy push in the generous 28-song show. They all seemed well received (except perhaps the slowest ones) but there was a nostalgic undercurrent animating fans who cheered best their earlier songs — “A-Punk” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” from their 2008 eponymous debut; “Horchata” and “Cousins” from the 2010 follow up ”Contra”; and the songs with women’s names from 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City, “Diane Young” and “Hannah Hunt.”

Koenig said something about having more voices on the new album, but it’s more obvious than ever in a live setting that he is the band’s center. Morgan came down from her guitar and keyboard perch to sing a verse of just one song all night. There was surprising little vocal support from the others onstage; the big choral moments were provided via sample. More collaborative was the guitar work of Jones, who in his shorts and big Afro resembled Reggie Watts on stage, eking out electronic tones from his treated guitar.

The main guitar sound, though, continued to be Koenig’s bright fingerwork, so influenced by the West African guitar pop bands, as distilled through Paul Simon’s ”Graceland.” Vampire Weekend has acknowledging his influence this tour by throwing in a cover of “Late in the Evening” here and there. In Maryland, their cover choice was The Doors’ “Peace Frog,” just because they heard the band played Merriweather Post in the venue’s second season. Besides being a nice change of pace, it proved that Koenig didn’t have to stay in the high register that defines the band’s sound; he could just as well do a rock baritone (but apparently chooses not to).

The other cover, if you could call it that was by SBTRKT, whose single “New Dorp, New York” featured vocals from Koenig in the original recording. The band veered toward Toots & the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” in an encore version of “Diplomat’s Son” that proved they either have difficulty getting a handle on reggae, or simply couldn’t hear each other too well on stage. You have to give them credit for switching up the set every single night of the long tour (sometimes ending with “Sunflower” instead of opening with it) and leaving room for audience requests at the end for whatever they felt was left out.

The stage set was dominated by a giant round Earth, perhaps representing the world music interests in the band (Perhaps also reflecting the band, it didn’t really start spinning away from the Americas until about halfway through). Surrounding the globe were spotlights in a circle, as in an old Pink Floyd show.

There’s an undeniable sunniness to Vampire Weekend’s music that makes it widely appealing. Like Simon, they also load up the simple, bright melodies with incongruently bookish phrases. Like Talking Heads, this is a brainy band with an intent to make you dance.

It was formed at Columbia University a dozen years ago, and Koenig, at 35, still looks like an fresher-faced undergrad. Terms that formed their earliest hits, from “Oxford Comma” to “Mansard Roof” seem like notes that fell from a freshman’s vocab list. That makes them fun but also as preppy as the people pictured on their early discs. It also leads to them seeming somewhat bloodless, missing a serious connection to the world spinning behind them.

But maybe that stuff’s for grownups, and this was the last day before the weekend that marks the traditional end of summer.

Still, as if to emphasize the contrast, the show’s opener was the terrific young blues guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, whose playing was full of enough fire and grit to fuel the rest of the evening.

 

The setlist for Vampire Weekend Thursday was:

  • “Sunflower”
  • “White Sky”
  • “Bambina”
  • “Holiday”
  • “Mansard Roof”
  • “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
  • “How Long?”
  • “Unbelievers”
  • “Sympathy”
  • “Unbearably White”
  • “Horchata”
  • “New Dorp. New York”
  • “This Life”
  • “Hold You Now”
  • “Harmony Hall”
  • “Diane Young”
  • “Cousins”
  • “A-Punk”
  • “Don’t Lie”
  • “Peace Frog”
  • “Oxford Comma”
  • “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”
  • “Big Blue”
  • “Hannah Hunt”
  • “Diplomat’s Son”
  • “Flower Moon”
  • “Worship You”
  • “Ya Hey”
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