Musical Musings: Vampire Weekend at the Wex

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

First time I heard Vampire Weekend, I thought "Mansard Roof" sounded like a Maroon 5 song or the indie rock gateway drug for Parrotheads the world over. The next tune of theirs I encountered, "A-Punk," came off like some sort of ska revival, ready to be blasted over the trailer for some awful Jason Biggs comedy. Surely this was not the sound of indie America, circa 2008?

Then again, the first time I heard "Last Nite," it seemed like something out of Swing Kids 2000 (God forbid such a thing exist), and as anyone who knows me can attest, I soon grew to love the Strokes dearly. Vampire Weekend is quite similar: A bunch of rich kids from New York who make easily digestable, wholly enjoyable pop-rock. It's straightforward guitar music with a taste of Afro-pop rhythm and island flair—basically, just swap in Paul Simon for the Velvet Underground. That in mind, and considering the endorsement of Davids Byrne and Bowie, certainly this band deserved more than a cursory glance.

I came around three or four spins into their self-titled debut. (It takes a stronger man than me to resist the shimmying sounds of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.") But I have to believe even those who don't like the record would have found something to like about last night's show at the Wexner Center Black Box. That's a weird thing to say considering the band did little more than replicate its studio versions for the stage, but where it's easy to dismiss its record as just another pop rock album, not just any band can put on a show like that.

That's not to say they rocked in any visceral sense of the word. Their demeanor was as polite as their fitted sweaters and overly literate lyrics would suggest. Presumably, even at a venue where the alcohol was flowing, Ezra Koenig and his mates would have acted the same. One online commenter recently called the band "the Walkmen with no balls," a description that seems more and more right the more I listen, especially when Koenig plays tremolo notes on his highest guitar strings in tandem with Rostam Batmanglij's surging keyboard lines. The music is much the same as what the Walkmen do, minus the grit, and that extends to the bands' stage presence. Where Hamilton Leithauser reeled like a passionate drunk, leaning his head so far back on glory notes that it practically wiped the floor, Koenig more or less stood still and smiled as he and his band expertly performed their music.

This might have been a disappointment had it not fit Vampire Weekend's character so perfectly. They're charmers, well-trained in the ways of high society, and their means of connection with the audience was not physical—no stage-dives or herky-jerky shows of emotion here. Instead, Koenig minded his manners and bantered about how Columbus should be proud of its status as one of the largest cities in the country. At times that point, which he returned to often, came off as patronizing; other times he seemed genuine in his excitement for our city and hopes to return.

I would be glad to see them back here any time. The music's simplicity and strength showed more than ever on stage, where the band, as The New York Times noted a while back, is confident enough to play without much distortion or volume. They let the songs speak for themselves, and for the most part, they made a fine case. One exception was "Boston," the closest thing Vampire Weekend has to a punk song. Originally included on the demo that won the band so much acclaim last year, the song didn't make the cut for their LP, and rightfully so. Its balls-out feel doesn't mesh with the rest of the group's catalog, and its songwriting is rather slack. Most everything else they played was tight, focused and highly pleasant.

Of course, that didn't amount to much in terms of quantity. Just like when the Strokes came to Cleveland on their first tour, Vampire Weekend played all 11 songs from their debut plus one outtake and one new song. They didn't encore because they literally don't have any more songs. Even in the blog-hype era, a band with only 13 tunes to its name doesn't usually get such a high-profile gig, much less anointment as high art worthy of the Wexner Center brand. Many have questioned whether Vampire Weekend deserves such opportunities, but I'm sticking to my guns: They do what they do extremely well, and while they're not blowing my mind, they've been known to make my day. They deserve whatever adoration they get.