June 2010

Essays

Robert Forster

Out on the weekend

Vampire Weekend at Brisbane’s Tivoli

The big discussion has been about Ezra’s hair. Recent photos have had it fluffy and a little out of control. No problems tonight, though; it’s clipped and up over the ears, with a fringe that curls just above the left eye. He’s in old-school trainers sans socks, tight black trousers that don’t scream ‘rock’, and his signature blonde Epiphone semi-acoustic guitar nestles into his shoulder. It doesn’t take too long into the set, with Ezra hunched intently over the microphone, one leg pumping, to realise that this guy, much as he would squirm at the label, is a rock star. And with an all-ages crowd heavy with teenage girls – a bra at one moment flies past his face – something of a heart-throb too.

Tonight’s show is one of eight in Australia, part of a world tour that will have the band in Wales in two weeks, Philadelphia in three, and then straight back to Europe to play every major rock festival of the summer. Further in the distance is three nights at Radio City Hall in hometown New York, and the Hollywood Bowl on 26 September. So Brisbane, in the old vaudevillian charm of the Tivoli Theatre, is an intimate gig, one more stop on the long trail to promote a second album that, besides reaching number one on the US charts, also follows quickly on the heels of one of the best debut albums of the last 20 years. And though the group are contained and tight, with that particular brand of New York perma-cool well in place, you’d have to say they blaze and deliver.

The quick explanation for their popularity is the catchiness and clout of the songs. They have around 20 of them and they’re played well. The charm of Vampire Weekend is their lightness of touch; the space in the music and the discrimination shown in the choice of instruments that carry the tunes. Ezra Koenig sings many a verse with his hands at his side, the rhythm section of Chris Thomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass) shake the bones of the songs but never settle into stretches of dull rock timekeeping, and Rostam Batmanglij, being the band’s musical genius, is capable of weaving layers of guitar and keyboards through a song without it ever sounding intrusive. Heavy volume and the strum that fills so much rock and pop music are mostly absent, and when the foot is suddenly put to the floor to punctuate a chorus or race through an instrumental section, the effect is electrifying. Part of this ability comes from the roots of the band’s music. Afro-pop, hip-hop, ska and R & B all have space and air. Vampire Weekend have added some straight pop and an indie touch in the lyrics to make a very refreshing and infectious brand of music. It’s been influential too; tonight’s support band, Cloud Control, is one of many groups under the spell, with the jazzy riffs and three-chord ‘African’ chorus of their latest single, ‘This Is What I Said’, as evidence.

The first half of tonight’s set leans on the new album, Contra, with several of the up-tempo songs, ‘Holiday’, ‘Run’ and ‘Giving Up the Gun’, sounding stronger in the live setting. This supports a minor criticism of the record’s production by band member Batmanglij, who has a tendency through talent and exuberance to overload songs with ideas; things can get a little too clever and cut up. The stripped-down stride the band falls into with these songs brightens and lifts them from the memory of the album versions. Other tracks, such as recent single ‘Cousins’ – a distant relative in punch and melody of Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ – and ‘Horchata’, impress as they do on record. And thankfully a place is found for ‘Taxi Cab’. This is a trippy ballad unlike anything on their debut; coming after four up-tempo tracks, it is the kind of groundbreaking moment bands dream of for their second album. On stage Thomson leaves his kit to play a triggered drum pad and Baio puts his Rickenbacker down to play upright bass. The song ripples over a beautiful melody and, although Vampire Weekend lyrics are always difficult to decode, Ezra seems to be inching closer to a narrative, the music bringing him there as he croons: “Unsentimental / Travelling around / Sure of myself / Sure of it now / But you were standing there so close to me / Like the future was supposed to be / In the aisles of the grocery / And the blocks uptown”.

The first album’s songs get their run and ignite a storm. The balcony shakes, the mosh pit swirls faster, and the boys in the band barely blink. And the strength of ‘A-Punk’, ‘Mansard Roof’, ‘I Stand Corrected’ and ‘Oxford Comma’ (best song of the last five years) can’t be denied. These numbers are special and still very fresh-sounding, and they reinforce the relation the defiantly titled Contra has to its predecessor. It is an album that lacks the killer run of formation-era songs, but it is also an album from a group smart enough not to try to fake a run of such songs, nor to lean too heavily on the sonic blueprint of their debut. There is a touch of New York in this, a town that likes its artists to be successful but also to return diligently to the experimental coalface when it comes to future work. So one of the chief pleasures of the concert is to hear the smoother-than-expected join between the albums, and to find in the bones of Contra a set of songs closer in quality and substance to the more celebrated debut.

The band play for a crisp hour, with minimal between-song chat. Ezra manages to pronounce Brisbane as ‘Brizbin’ and save himself a groaning admonishment from the crowd. There is one three-song encore, which is gracefully signalled as the last music of the night. They finish on a ferocious ‘Walcott’, the last chorus repeated with building intensity in a rare gesture to the orthodoxies of rock. It is climax reached and then quickly left as the band walks purposefully off stage. We file out with the wind still in our chests. Best band in the world at the moment. Check. Next album to be blinding. Check.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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