Vampire Weekend at Orpheum Theatre, 8/5/13
Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis
Monday, August 5, 2013
Vampire Weekend are not a sentimental band. We should know this already, of course. It's plain to see in their music, and frankly, they're too successful to waste their time with such middling emotions. But as the New Yorkers returned to Minneapolis last night for a visit to the Orpheum Theatre -- a show that frontman Ezra Koenig called, in his own self-satisfied manner, their "best-ever in Minnesota" -- they let it slip all over again.
"This is a nice place," Koenig said at one point between songs. He looked up toward the balcony, taking stock of his surroundings, and singled out the overhead chandelier as particularly impressive. "Every time we come back," he added with a smirk, "we keep moving up."
What went unsaid was that, on their last visit, the band played at First Avenue -- you know, the House the Prince Built? Then again, this is no matter to Koenig. The next time he's back in town, it'll probably be at the Target Center -- and, like it or not, he'll deserve to be there. Or, at any rate, he'll have earned it.
Strictly speaking, there are a lot of reasons to hate a person's music. Take Kanye West, for instance -- a guy so egomaniacal that lots of people can't help but hope he fails. Or take R. Kelly, someone whose personal failings can make it difficult -- maybe even wrong -- to support, much less enjoy, his music. And then there's a band like Vampire Weekend, whose polo shirts and smug demeanor smack of the sort of privilege and condescension that fly in the face of what rock music is supposed to be about.
Their fans, though, just plain love it. In fact, from the moment that "Cousins" set the energy crackling -- an energy that barely dipped thereafter -- the crowd at the Orpheum was about as enthusiastic as you'll see. They sang along to the words, they danced in front of their seats, cheered during the breakdowns, and pumped their fists to the choruses. There was never a moment when the whole room wasn't fully behind what was happening onstage. It was almost as if there were real rock stars up there, not some waspish Ivy leaguers with expensive haircuts and fresh white kicks.
But that's just the thing: Regardless of how you feel about the music, Vampire Weekend are a very good band. Not many others can put on as good of a show as they do, one that's technically excellent, backed up with great songwriting, and, most importantly, good showmanship. What's more, they're fully aware of the stereotypes they've arguably created for themselves, so they lay it on thick -- much the same way that their haters will only inspire more references to Benetton and horchatas.
Koenig, in particular, was in complete control. He knew exactly where he was in own his physical space, and he seemed to anticipate every twist and turn of the show with a flip of his hair or an arch pose. He even affected an Elvis impression with his vocal during "Diane Young." (What, you don't think of Ezra as a sex symbol?) These things can be learned, perhaps, but still, not everyone has them.
It's not hard to see, then, what's appealing about this music: The show played so perfectly to the rules that it often wasn't hard to predict the next logical song in the set list, and yet it also never felt contrived or phoned-in. What's a little harder to suss out, however, is just how people connect with it. The crowd, in spite of the preponderance of younger folks, were, if not affluent, then at least more nicely dressed than most concertgoers in their age group. Is this a band, then, that speaks to their realities? Does it speak to their fantasies? Or is it just good pop music?
Certainly, in the age of 401k's and trust-fund babies, there's an argument to be made here for the fetishization of wealth. But that would sell the music short; after all, Koenig's writing, despite using their language and cultural cues, is generally critical of the upper class. Like innumerable rock bands before them, Vampire Weekend simply see no need to be modest -- about their education, their musical gifts, or their intellectual elitism. And yet it's for that very reason, ironically enough, that that same lack of modesty comes off as them being spoiled, or else disingenuous.
That neither of those things is true came out gradually through the course of the night, as the songs from throughout the band's catalog played off of one another. There were the songs from their self-titled debut, still the catchiest, most energetic songs that they've written. (They helped keep the momentum going, too, sprinkled as they were throughout the night.) Crucially, these songs felt the most adversarial -- songs like "Campus" or "A-Punk" that railed against the shallowness of college life, their sharp pop hooks digging in deep. On the other end of the spectrum, there were the songs from their latest record, Modern Vampires of the City, songs that were more oblique musically and more personal lyrically. It was here that the "you" and "I" became "we," and the conflicts become hardships -- something that people shared in.
Somewhere in the middle, there was "Giving Up the Gun" -- still possibly Vampire Weekend's best song, and probably the highlight of last night, boasting a big, swarming coda that felt like it should have been the grand finale. (It wasn't, and for that reason, in spite of the set only being 80 minutes, it somehow seemed like it went a little too long -- its only real shortcoming.) Koenig's narrator stood somewhere in the middle, as well, examining the sad fate of an old, washed-up rock star, a possible projection of a future self.
As ever, there was no sentimentality here, merely observation, and maybe a little perspective. Which is about all we could've expected -- or, really, asked for.
Critics Bias: I love it when bands aren't afraid to be pompous jerks -- so long as they sell it. Personally, I think these guys do.
The Crowd: Old enough to have financial stability, or else planning to marry into money.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Those are some fresh kicks!"
Random Notebook Dump: The opening band (who, oddly enough, didn't seem to be listed anywhere in advance of the show) were an Australian trio named the High Highs. They sounded a little similar to the Shocking Pinks -- although, I guess I'd say that about most Australian bands, so what do I know?
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Boston (Ladies of Cambridge)
Giving Up the Gun
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