Vampire Weekend isn’t exactly a “jam band” now.
I know you’ve heard otherwise, and, for sure, Ezra Koenig’s class-scrutinizing crew of deft pan-global carpetbaggers did jam plenty at the Armory on Sunday night. Almost every one of their nine selections from the band’s fourth and latest album, Father of the Bride, stretched long past its taut recorded confines onstage.
But while it’s practically a rite of passage for middle-aging indie boys in prestige bands to follow their own dark star as they mature and to launch fleet psychedelic forays into Jerry Garcia worship (the way normier fellas develop an interest in grilling technique, boat accumulation, or WWII tactical minutia), Koenig’s too prudent a musician to go full Deadhead. If he’s going on a trip, he’s gonna pack carefully beforehand and draw up a full itinerary.
Vampire Weekend has expanded in more ways than one since they last passed through six years ago. They played 27 songs, which is (please excuse the music-critic jargon) a lot of songs. About 135 minutes’ worth of songs, in fact. And the standard four-man rock band who last toured here has metastasized into a full seven-piece—they’re practically three soulful female vocalists and a horn section away from a Sting lineup. (And, I mean, Koenig is not entirely not Sting.)
Vampire Weekend had opened the previous two shows on this tour with the frilly new “Sunflower,” complete with its expansive, extended “J.S. Bach at the Fillmore West” coda, and that was maybe a lot to ask of fans weaned on the band’s ska-for-course-credit groove, who hadn’t quite signed on for anything longer and stranger. So the group eased the Armory crowd into the new VW sound with three more conventional songs: “Bambina” (the aural equivalent of that dog in the burning room insisting “this is fine”),“Unbelievers” (Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” as a refusal of Pascal’s wager), and “White Sky” (a sweetly elegant little exploration of class envy that hints at “Wimoweh”).
Then came the jams. With his songs no longer grounded in the precise intricacy of departed bandmate Rostam Batmanglij’s arrangements, Koenig is stretching out some, which also makes sense given his Afropop interests. (You know those African records you pretended to care about back when you were griping about this band’s cultural appropriation? Those guys solo for days. The Dead are the Ramones or Minor Threat up against Franco or Rochereau.) And if the addition of a second drummer is usually the kind of move you usually see in aging nostalgia acts, where the main dude’s losing his chops and requires the rock equivalent of a walker, new guy Garrett Rayand and original drummer Chris Tomson freed each other up for nimbler polyrhythms.
Far from the noodling you might fear, the instrumental extensions were as much ambient prog as expressive psych journeys, as Koenig’s guitar patterns fit with jigsaw accuracy into new sideman Brian Robert Jones’ parts and the quasi-classical flourishes of pianist Will Canzoneri, who plays like the E-Street Band’s Roy Bittan if he’d never heard a Ronettes single. When Koenig channelled his inner Frampton to talk-box the kicker to “2021,” it was sweet and goofy and technically impressive.
Anyway, there was still plenty of shorter, punchier stuff for you ADD types: “Diane Young” into “Cousins” (dedicated to a certain death-anticipating Vikings QB) into “A-Punk” is one crowd-pleasing mini-set of ravers. And there were some sharp curve balls in the set too, though the mild response to a winning cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "Everywhere" made me wonder if millennials are not in fact as infatuated with Tango in the Night as music criticism has led me to believe.
Koenig isn’t much for onstage chatter. (His speaking voice is disconcertingly Travoltaesque when he does indulge in pleasantries.) But amid “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the singer introduced a “local legend,” and if you were expecting anyone who’d puked in the urinal at the CC Club, the band’s segue into the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear” should have tipped you off otherwise. Out came entrepreneur Martha Rossini Olson of Sweet Martha’s Cookies, who was hawking an exclusive t shirt on sale only at the merch table that night, proceeds going to the Friends of the St. Paul Library. (They sold out but there’s one available on eBay.)
After a long, hot set, the mostly request-driven encore was uneven if not quite disappointing. While no one’s ever bummed to hear Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” slotting it into the middle of “Diplomat’s Son” made it feel like we were on a cruise ship that had really shelled out for an ace tourist-reggae band, a misstep from a group that’s usually so artfully self-conscious about their brushes with self-parody. But yes, they did play “Hannah Hunt,” Koenig’s wrenching masterpiece about communication breakdown that’s all the more unnerving because his voice typically generates such an effortless intimacy.
Throughout the night, a giant, brightly colored globe loomed behind the band, encircled in lights, a 3D rendering of the childlike Father of the Bride album cover. The setting felt like an ironic but not cruel nod back toward the simpler one-world WOMAD ethos of the ’80s, whose musical affinities the band got teased about in their earlier days. But it took on starker meanings as Koenig sang “How Long?,” a gentling wafting song about the futility of everyday life as you await the rising oceans to engulf you, or the lovely “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” about how history’s many wrong turns potentially lead to dead ends. Turns out there are some trips you can’t prepare for after all.
Click here to see our photo slideshow of VW jammin' at the Armory
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (with an instrumental snippet of the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”)
Giving Up the Gun
Everywhere (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
Diplomat's Son (medley with Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”)
The Kids Don't Stand a Chance
The crowd: Neat, cute, polite white couples exploring monogamy.
Critic’s bias: Vampire Weekend are the most consistent indie band of the past decade. And if you want to complain that they’ve only released four albums in that time, well, maybe other artists should take the hint? I recently reviewed Father of the Bride here.