Sure, Vampire Weekend is great live, but you haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen them via telecast in the anodyne confines of a conference room. This Ezra Koenig-once-removed viewing experience was the last resort of journalists and civilians alike once the Radio Day Stage reached capacity. Those of us on the floor inside enjoyed a lengthy sound check and a six-song set that was almost as long. “Thanks for coming out at 5 p.m. to see us in this ballroom,” frontman Koenig said, acknowledging the corporatism of the atmosphere. “But our first show was actually in a convention center, so, you know, we feel right at home.”
Vampire Weekend is one of those bands (rather like Weezer) whose live sets hardly ever deviate from their studio recordings. The clean precision of Koenig’s guitar arpeggios is a marvel to watch in action, and if the luster in his voice was somewhat diminished by a mediocre mix, the harmonies never failed to lock, and the pleasure of seeing these fusionist popsters deliver their buoyant, very intricate tunes in person is a treat, not least because of the palpable joy the band exudes itself. “Unbelievers,” the one new track the band performed, is a typically crisp midtempo pop gem that bodes well for the group’s forthcoming third album, even if it would have fit very snugly on either of their first two.
Across the river, crowds were queuing already for the free, open-air Jim James/Flaming Lips trip-fest. The air was thick with barbecue and billows of galvanic smoke, and festival-goers lolled on the grass of Auditorium Shores, a venue that feels like a jam-band mecca and a far cry from the gamey indoor venues of downtown. James delivered an abridgment of his new album, Regions of Light and Sounds of God, nearly identical in sequencing to his set from Wednesday, but a far grander thing on a far bigger stage. James’s rock-star mane seems designed for the river-winds of Auditorium Shores, and the rock shaman strode, leaped, and two-stepped across this stage, trading a guitar for a tenor saxophone when appropriate and introducing the Flaming Lips as “a goddamn American treasure.” Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, as though obliged to one-up James’s idiosyncrasies, opened his set with a promise: “We figure, people come to South by Southwest looking for something radical. So we’re going to do a record that none of you have ever heard before, and a show that none of us has ever played before. If we fuck up, just go home and say, ’The Lips really had it together.’”
But do believe us: The Lips really had it together. The new material is about as esoteric as the most diehard fan could hope for, apparently premised on themes of genesis and rebirth. An early murmur rippled through the crowd: Was Wayne Coyne cradling a live baby on stage? A plastic baby? (The hair sure looked real.) Several attendees swore that the bundle in question was in fact a “baby octopus,” and Coyne for his part did little to silence the speculation, yawping various origin myths for this poor simulacrum of a child. “We don’t even know this baby! We just found him backstage. But he’s sleeping all the way through.” Less composed were certain Lips-heads who were piqued when Coyne pivoted from the new disc to play highlights from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The crowd was split between genial noodlers who would’ve been equally happy at a Galactic show and super-devoted fans who seemed to bridle at the band-wagonry of the hula-hoop crowd. “I don’t know, man,” said one guy in his early 50s, dressed all in black, “I just feel like there are no real fans here.” But these two special-interest groups—the MDMA dabblers and the folks who have memorized all of Zaireeka—constitute the principal components of the Lips’ fanbase (data mining from Coachella will back this up), and the two blocs partied peaceably as the sun went down over the river.