By JAMES ROBINSON
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: The Vampire Diaries, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight and True Blood (but not, however, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Vampire Weekend, punching its ticket on a short jaunt between Coachella appointments, draws an odd crowd. The audience at the cavernous and grand Fox Theater in Oakland last night cut between young girls, preppy looking dudes, comparatively older-looking young professionals, and crossed-over indie kids out for a concert on a school night.
In 2008, when Vampire Weekend released its eponymous debut, the band was like a twee-Strokes: it did for summers on Cape Cod and Paul Simon's Graceland what Julian Casablancas' squad did for the Velvet Underground and dressing like you were in the Ramones. Yeah, it's a great album, but once red-hot, slightly derivative indie bands tend to age like child stars. A few albums in and Vampire Weekend is doing whatever the musical equivalent of sending sexually explicit texts to Drake is.
Now that the traditional music industry has collapsed, it's sort of hard to tell where Vampire Weekend got so big. Contra was a less-hyped second album. It reviewed well but didn't capture that same zeitgeist. Vampire Weekend is not an FM-radio band. It topped the charts, but now that no one buys music, what band hasn't?
I digress into this, because being among thousands of people watching this concert on a Wednesday, in the sort of slightly drunken crowd where Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies" over the loudspeaker gets a more enthusiastic response than the opening band (Brooklyn's Tanlines), I was genuinely taken aback by how much adoration there was for just the idea of Vampire Weekend.
From the instant they were even visible side of stage, a squeal-y reverence took over the Fox Theater. Every platitudinous cry of "Oaklaaaand!" from frontman Ezra Koenig was met with a winning-touchdown-at-the-Super-Bowl roar from the crowd. Everyone in attendance pogoed and bobbed and nodded for the entire hour the band was on stage. People screamed, sung, smiled.
The set list was flawless: two cuts off Contra and two from the first album to start, before the band ripped into a five-song run of new material from the coming Modern Vampires of the City and then focused the last third on the debut record. "Campus," "Oxford Comma," "Walcott" and "Mansard Roof" -- spread over the finale and the encore -- had the crowd in a sweat. The old songs worked a miracle five years on. The new material sounded more produced and more slickly melodic than what Vampire Weekend has done previously. Afro-pop, light on the "afro."
I wished I could've joined in. It's always a curmudgeonly feeling to be (maybe) the one guy there who isn't buying it.
It was a masterfully phoned-in performance. Vampire Weekend played every note they had to and not one more. Ezra Koenig's in-song rock-outs seemed affected and perfunctory. When on keyboard duty, sometime-guitarist Rostam Batmanglij hit the keys with the enthusiasm of a guy who has to push a button every now and then at work. Koenig engaged the crowd with clichés, not warmth. He didn't say a sentence until halfway into the set. The band seemed at a distance both from its songs and the audience.
All could be considered atmospheric interference, an off night for Vampire Weekend, if there wasn't a greater, more systemic concern at play. The band makes off-kilter pop music, good for a toe tap or a little bit of a wiggle. On stage at the Fox Theater, it comes out like small songs warped awkwardly for a big-stage setting. The drums are overpowering, mic'ed at nuclear levels. Guitar distortion tended to step all over the songs at awkward points. All the lasers, set-design, and smoke machines couldn't distract me from thinking that the parts didn't really come together. The show seemed like four young guys drowned by a space their music couldn't fill.
Numbers: Sure, I'm probably arguing this against 2,000 people who had the time of their life. Diplomatically I must concede that going on numbers alone, I'd have my work cut out for me.
"My father is an optometrist!" -- yelled a small blonde girl, right as the house music stopped in preparation for the band to walk on.
"When I first saw U2, I knew they would be around in 10 years. These days, I don't who I could say that about." Thus said the evening's obligatory old guy, standing two people behind me.