Despite Vampire Weekend’s preppy affectations—they are Ivy League-educated and sing songs about Cape Cod—there are no khakis in tonight’s crowd. No polo shirts. No lilacs or lavenders or Ralph Lauren. Onstage, it’s a slightly different story: drummer Chris Tomson wears a neat button-down shirt, while bass player Chris Baio dons a turquoise cardigan. Only keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij eschews the educational edict, playing in a grunge-era plaid shirt. It doesn’t really matter, though; all eyes are focused on singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig.
Dressed in a button-down that’s neatly tucked into his jeans, Koenig, with his clean-shaven good looks and tousled hair, bears a passing resemblance to Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. And, like the Sheffield-based singer, Koenig’s songs (while not as lyrically insightful on a sociological level) are also composed of short, sharp snippets of life. He exudes a preppy attitude in the same way that Turner exudes a working-class edict; both singers shoot down their chosen social sects in their own demure lyrical fashion. It’s as if they’re both exploiting the lifestyles, rather than embracing them. Koenig comes across as the epitome of “educated cool,” yet, as he himself says, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”
(Beggars; US: 29 Jan 2008; UK: 28 Jan 2008)
Vampire Weekend first played Philadelphia last August. They were third on the bill behind Ra Ra Riot and Tokyo Police Club, and ambled onstage to the sight of a club still being filled. Tonight, they take the stage at 9:29 pm, unfazed by the sold-out crowd that greets them. There’s a certain kind of boyish confidence about the band, the kind you might corral after a girl you deem too pretty makes a pass at you.
Once the instruments are picked up and prepped, the band immediately kick into “Mansard Roof”, the opener from their recently released debut album. Koenig’s vocals sound reedier than on record, but the crowd doesn’t mind and immediately starts dancing. It’s hard not to. Their music is a heady and hooky mix of indie pop doused with African accoutrements, jaunty piano riffs, and a certain spiky punk undertone (“A-Punk” could be the Buzzcocks covering Orange Juice). It’s an insistent sound. The guitars are clear and crisp, but live they sound better strummed than picked. Exemplifying this, tonight’s best songs are the balmy bar-chord thunder of “Ladies of Cambridge”, and “Oxford Comma”, whose obtuse yet extremely hummable chorus is propelled by forceful downward strums.
On record, the intricate, African-influenced guitar playing is a standout feature, but tonight it tends to get lost in the mix. “Bryn” sounds out of sync and underwhelming, while “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” is a little wayward, despite extensive audience participation (we all sing along to the high-pitched backing vocals). This is because the band is looser live than on record. And while some songs do suffer from this slipshod approach, several tunes actually benefit from the relaxed demeanor. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, introduced as one of their oldest songs, is played as if the band is already tired of it. But that’s a good thing: Koenig’s vocals sound tempestuous, giving the lyrics a little more bite. Best of all is “Ladies of Cambridge”, which, with its jaunty rhythm and rising lyrical cadence, sounds great in the live environment—so much so that it makes you wonder why they left it off the album.
Only “I Stand Corrected” is wound tighter than its recorded counterpart. This is due, in part, to the simplicity of the song, which builds on the combined pummeling of Tomson’s floor tom and Batmanglij’s rudimentary piano playing. While the rest of the band never strays too far from their musical signifiers—a mix they have dubbed “Upper West Side Soweto”—Batmanglij’s keyboard playing runs the gamut from baroque orchestral flourishes and pounding one-note propulsions to weird background noises that infuse “One” with a slight Caribbean influence.
The band’s influences, however, have caused some consternation amongst critics. Vampire Weekend’s liberal use of African music coupled with their J. Crew clothing, Ivy League education, and hoity-toity references has led some people to question the group’s musical appropriations and grumble at their preppy approach. Tonight, though, the band come across as endearingly earnest, a bunch of competent musicians singing about, as the old adage goes, what they know.
Authenticity, of course, doesn’t automatically beget a relationship with one’s audience. How many of us can actually relate to Ivy League campuses and Cape Cod? But burrow beneath the kefir-stained keffiyahs and you realize that the songs aren’t just about blue-blood vacation spots and Louis Vuitton-loving Lotharios, but everyday relationships, young love, bus routes, and, of course, college. Mostly, though, they are about escapism; they’re escaping Cape Cod (“Walcott”), escaping the close confines of a broken relationship (“Campus”), and politely escaping an argument (“I Stand Corrected”). Even the one new song they play tonight—a muscular update on their current sound that sees Batmanglij step away from his keys and pick up a second guitar—evokes images of escape, as Koenig sings of heading west to California.
At 10:14 pm, exactly 45 minutes after setting foot on stage, the band leaves after a sprightly run through the barreling “Walcott”. The early exit indicates, perhaps, that their back catalogue isn’t as extensive as their influences. Then again, it’s also a school night.