“Do we have any unbelievers in the house?” Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig asks three songs into their set at the General Society Library last night. “Listen closely, I’ve got some bad news for you.” Ezra is being cheeky, the hook goes “We know the fire awaits unbelievers, all of the sinners the same. Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train.” though by the end of the album the song comes from, Modern Vampires Of The City, Ezra is seeing Yahweh in the segue between “Israelites” and “19th Nervous Breakdown”. Heady stuff for a pop band in 2013.
“Unbelievers” is a great song, it has the impetuousness of no longer married to youth Ezra’s ethic lessons and marries it to Rostam Batmanglij’s inspired rethinking of “Peggy Sue”. A high point on one of 2013’s best albums, they perform it early and I am in the front row and I am already checking my watch. Vampire Weekend are a bore on stage.
Lead by Rostam and Ezra, one is an introvert and the other is a smirking smartass and the entire band practise self control and sustained musicianship to the exclusion of inclusion. I’ve seen them many times and sometimes it is a problem and sometimes they break through, but the last couple of times I’ve seen the band they’ve reminded me of Paul McCartney and Wings in 1973: they are perfectionists and they are there to replicate the pleasure you got in the recorded versions. Vampire Weekend are quality control experts.
This secret gig at General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of The City Of New York Library has been on my radar for a couple of weeks, ever since General Society members and rock nyc partners Joseph and Donna McElroy had alerted me to it. They got me on the guest list for a very hot ticket. Long time rock nyc readers may remember the “Muse And Music Series” I helped curate in 2011; the Library was built in 1820 and is a beautifully preserved testament to the Society’s good work, including giving college tuition scholarships for over 150 years. The space doesn’t need much amplification for live music, but tonight it is getting it because Vampire Weekend are being taped for a late February 2014 performance on PBS’ ” Live From The Artist Den”, entering its 7th season.
“Live From The Artist sDen” matches popular musicians with historic venues, for instance Robert Plant and the Band Of Joy performed at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium and the only surprise is it took them this long to tap the General Society for a similar honor; New York sons Vampire Weekend is a perfect match. I arrive early and go in search of the President of the Society, Victoria Dengel, and she invites me to go anywhere I choose. I wander around the books and cameramen but when the doors open for the invitation only concert, I decide to forego the VIP section and make my way to the front. A good idea in theory, in practise I am right next to the speakers and every time Ezra goes falsetto and every time Chris Tomson throttles the beat (not that often -he is too busy keeping the skittish rhythms in time) my eardrum feels like it might explode any second. Half way through the set I head to the back of the reading room, pushing college girls out of my way as they stand agog at the sight of Ezra in flannel shirt and jeans.
With the Whit Stillman movie walk ons period finally over, Ezra has morphed into Ira Kaplan and the band walk on stage to the strains of Drake’s “Worst Behavior” – off Ezra’s eccentric review here . Up close the band look very young, 29 years old Ezra looks as though he has just stepped out of college. Indeed, he looks a lot lot one of my best friends (though I don’t see him much any more) Michael Blauner. They are both good looking Jewish middle class New Yorkers and it is a sort of look but also a sort of attitude: there is something both hip and liberal about them. With Ezra, it feels like an unwillingness to oversell himself. I am right in front of the stage and all I can sense is a sort of nolle presequi. While Vampire Weekend use hip hop and EDM production to fashion their somewhat South African music beats, they are a little old fashioned. As the Brooklyn scene retracts with one failed album after another from TV On The Radio, Yeasayer and a host others, Vampire Weekend have shaked the tag because their real influence comes from the late 1970s, early 1980s LES. Talking Heads is their forefather. But Talking Heads had a lead singer in David Byrne who revelled in the distance between what he was and what he did. Byrne had no problem making a fool of himself and Ezra won’t do it, he is too knowing for his own good on stage.
Ezra won’t and Rostam can’t. At one point in the proceedings strings whooshed in and like a twit I looked around for em, of course it was Rostam, one of the great musicians of the 21st century. A wizard, a true star on the Pro-Tools, a multi-instrumentalist who centers the sound on stage (and one of the two main songwriters for the band) but he is distracted by his job , he doesn’t interact with the audience at all and neither do the two Chris rhythm section Tomson and Baio. It is left entirely to Ezra and that’s not worst it is no behavior.
The 75 minute set we get isn’t that much different than the one I saw at Barclay Center in September reviewed here, they flip some songs, add nothing, no new songs (there seldom are), and, unlike Barclay’s, no cover songs. The excellent “Campus/Oxford Common” is still perfection, there is no unholy messes, everything works very well. “Cousins” and “Dyin’ Young” and “Horchata” are lively and as fun as they can be though Ezra has toned down his Presley impression on “Diane Young”. And both “Unbelievers” and “Hey Ya” are simply brilliant songs of unfaith and faith. Imagine the Paul Simon of Paul Simon meeting the Talking Heads of Remain In Light but also with something entirely original in its make up. This is why Robert Christgau gave Modern Vampires an “A+” -he recognized it perfectly. The band are a variation on a type but they are a great variation on a great type, Ezra is a ludicrously literate lyricist and the band play music which leaves the nerds at Consequence Of Sound in paroxysms of pleasure as they track down one sample after another: the problem with this form of rock writing when it comes to VE is that it is like describing a magic act by explaining how the tricks are done. I can safely say that though they haven’t written many songs I can’t live without, they have never ever written a song I don’t like.
In other words, we love the band because we know the band, we accept their world vision and we continue with them (Ezra called the latest album Chapter Three) and we can feel the aging of the band from college grammar courses to Falafel with Orthodox girls and the call of mortality with genius lines like “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth, age is an honor – it’s still not the truth.”
This is all true and they are still not very good on stage. They are alright but they are not inspired for the most part and they don’t speak to the audience. They are reserved and smart, they are like the great surgeon with lousy bedside manner. You need both, Vampire Weekend need to give more. I remember Liam Gallagher’s quote about Oasis on stage. “We’re standing there, we’re singing our songs. What do you want us to do?” Vampire Weekend should rent “Stop Making Sense”.
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