On Wednesday, Vampire Weekend opened a national tour in Washington, DC, and Slant was on hand to witness the scene. Vampire Weekend’s steady jangle and singer Ezra Koenig’s Paul Simon-esque croon has lent my dorm room-sized apartment a cheerful warmth this winter, but I wondered whether these nerds were capable of doing what only a great rock band can do: bring it live and swirl my twirpy individualism into a sexualized mass of like-minded music worshipers. The verdict? Well, let’s put it this way: The assertion that Vampire Weekend has recorded a near-perfect pop album is much easier to make than the one that claims they are a great rock band.
The 50 minutes of Afro-pop-via-Morningside Heights was hardly void of thrills, but on the whole, the experience was underwhelming and certainly less exciting than the moment I first clicked on their MySpace page last summer. Vampire Weekend are polite and they play their instruments well, but they haven’t mastered the art of seducing their audience. The relationship between musicians and listener, so stimulated by fiber-optic intercourse, proved un-rapturous in the flesh.
Up-and-coming district dive the Rock n’ Roll Hotel hosted the show, surely the biggest of the venue’s 18-month existence. Tickets sold out quickly and preppies from Georgetown and northern Virginia were probably tearing away at the GPS trying to find their way to the slowly revitalizing neighborhood where the R n’ R is located. I think every one of them made it, because the roomful waiting for the show to start was sweaty, pushed to the wall, and sporting plenty of collars and v-necks. The comfortable noise of chatter and beer-clink remained through Sam Rosen’s opening set (inelegantly attempted guitar riffage, tedious vocal histrionics; imagine a hung-over Rufus Wainwright backed by a 16-year-old Stephen Malkmus), and up until the moment the boys took the stage. Hardly the gasped anticipation you might expect for such an intensely hyped band. The subdued reception was appropriate, though, as Vampire Weekend gave little more than what was asked for.
Ezra Koenig and company entered decked in the haute accoutrement that has offended so many class-warring hipsters: braided leather belts, cardigans, loafers, charmingly youthful faces. A brief introduction, a nod to the family of keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij (himself a DC native) clumped to the right of the stage, and a leap into the album opener “Mansard Roof,” and the thing had begun. Vampire Weekend played the entirety of their catalogue, including a b-side called “Boston” and one new song, on which Batmanglij stepped away from this double-stacked synthesizers to duel Koenig on guitar. For the most part, song lengths and arrangements as heard on the album were adhered to precisely.
The set did have me noticing and appreciating aspects of Vampire Weekend that I had missed when listening to the album. Koenig never touches his guitar on “I Stand Corrected” (that song is more akin to new wave than I had previously thought, and better heard with the bass booming at the loudest level) and Batmanglij’s keyboard flourishes were higher in the mix on songs like “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” (he’s as important to the group’s sound as Koenig’s songwriting). The biggest audience-pleasers were what you would expect: “Cape Cod Kwaasa Kwaasa,” “Oxford Comma,” and especially “A-Punk,” which no one wanted to end, throwing themselves wildly into the chants of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
As Vampire Weekend’s listenership widens and their repertoire gets deeper, they’ll probably learn more of the little tricks that push an audience’s buttons. For now they’re content with replaying their album in a louder, more crowded setting. As a rock concert, this leaves much to be desired, and the band’s many haters will not be converted. For someone looking to hear good music played well, or a chance to hear their newest favorite songs in the company of sympathetic strangers, however, a Vampire Weekend performance will not disappoint.