Concert Review: Vampire Weekend at Roseland Ballroom: 4/28/2013
Vampire Weekend must have really enjoyed their show last night at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. This morning the band announced a second NYC-area show to support their new album, Modern Vampires of the City, at the larger (and seated) Barclays Center in Brooklyn. If last night was their idea of an intimate show, however, I’m not sure I want to be at Barclays on September 20.
This is the second time I’ve seen Vampire Weekend and both times I thoroughly enjoyed myself. They may be a bit kitschy for some, and I suspect that their music won’t stand the test of time, but at one point several years ago they were in the discussion for my favorite current band. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must – yes, I’m first and foremost a grunge and punk fan who even likes his indie pop to be bold – but I find myself drawn to the unique sound of this group from Columbia University. Much like with the Radio City show I attended in September 2011, I was excited to be at the Roseland last night and I hoped that I might see a show to remember. After all, this show was being simulcast online as part of an American Express promotion, and the webcast was being directed by longtime (and surprising) VW fan Steve Buscemi. The opening act was Saturday Night Live and Portlandia star Fred Armisen. This was no small show.
As with the 2011 show, however, I found the performance way too vanilla. The band took the stage, sang their many hits, mixed in a few new songs from MVOTC, and that was that. At this stage in their careers, lead singer Ezra Koenig and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij are both rock stars, but they both seem detached from the performance, almost as if they are uncomfortable in their own skin even on their home turf in NYC. VW has a massive legion of devoted fans – every song except for the as-yet unreleased ones (including the two recently-released singles off of MVOTC) had the crowd singing along loudly. All Ezra would have to do to engage them (OK, us) would be to acknowledge us beyond the obligatory “hey it’s great to be back in New York City.” That’s all he could muster though. There is no laughter at a VW show, no “wow” moment, just an evening of live hits from a band that somehow can fill an entire show with hits even after just two albums.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. All of the fans – a varied mix of young and old, split equally male and female – had a blast at the sweaty Roseland. The venue is way too big and hot for the crowd to really band together in unison, dancing the way you would see at a Matt & Kim show at Terminal 5 or a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show at Webster Hall for example. It doesn’t help that Ezra & co. don’t do anything to encourage it, the way Matt or Karen O do. But within each circle of friends you saw intense joy, delirium even, for each and every song – Cousins, Cape Cod, Holiday, Horchata, A-Punk, Campus, Oxford Comma, and Giving up the Gun were my pre-encore favorites, along with the two new singles Step and Diane Young. Fans jumped and danced and sang with their friends in a visible embodiment of the word excitement. Unfortunately, when an unknown song was played – especially the first song of the encore, the yawn-inducing “Obvious Bicycle” – the crowd was instantly bored. The show was like a “greatest hits” album – soulless but enjoyable.
I walked away lamenting the fact that it could have been so much more. Steve Buscemi joined the band on stage, sang a few bars (I think it was during “A-Punk”), said some awkward words and walked off. Ezra thanked him and moved on. It lacked any charm or spontaneity. I was reminded of when Elvis Costello joined the Strokes on stage at MSG, or Lou Reed joined Metric on stage at Radio City – those were moments, this was not. The band didn’t play “M79,” which should be mandatory in NYC. (It’s about a freaking Manhattan city bus!) The light show was nice but ordinary, the backdrops were nothing special, but the music … is oh so good. VW finished, as they always do, with “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” and “Walcott”, and it was impossible not to walk out of the Roseland either shouting “Blake’s Got a New Face!” or singing the chorus from “Walcott.” Vampire Weekend could so easily own New York City – and maybe they do, but not to the level that they should – if only they had the performance skills to match the music. It’s one reason that for all of their adoring fans, VW will never be to NYC what the Strokes were at their peak.
I have some pictures from the show here, but for all your proper needs – professional photos from Robert Altman, videos of the band performing two new songs (“Obvious Bicycle” and “Everlasting Arms”) and the setlist – head over here.
Many other show reviews – inclding one from Billboard, another from Hollwood Reporter – are online. Interestingly, each is supportive of the band and show (like I am) but each also notes the detached nature of the band (I hadn’t read either before writing my review above). From the Hollywood Reporter piece:
While mostly chirpy and carefree, there were moments — especially on their bigger, better-known songs — when Vampire Weekend felt somewhat detached. To be sure, they’re not the most charismatic band live, so without a noticeable injection of onstage energy, the likes of “White Sky,” with its Peter Gabriel-esque sparkle, and new song “Diane Young” lacked the conviction they needed to truly and objectively succeed in a live setting. It was all pleasant enough, but, as with “Holiday” and “One (Blake’s Got A New Face),” ultimately frivolous and perfunctory, sounding like a band trying to imitate their influences instead of build upon them. It didn’t help that, on the few occasions frontman Ezra Koenig addressed the crowd, he came across as somewhat wooden and insincere.
Meanwhile, tickets for the Barclays show go on sale Friday at noon; I’m sure you’ll see me there, this time with modified expectations. “Blake’s Got a New Face (Blake’s Got a New Face).” Man that song sticks.
 The Roseland concert capacity is over 3000 people. That’s not intimate, even by NYC standards.
 Which can be lyrically (Passion Pit), emotionally (Matt & Kim) or otherwise (MGMT).
 Radio City is probably too large a venue for Vampire Weekend, so I can’t imagine what Barclays will be like. Fortunately, I was sitting in the pit at Radio City, in the actual second row, literally feet away from Ezra and Rostam. I was so close I was able to see up the skirt of Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls, who opened the show. (To be clear, I had no choice given my vantage point but to see up Dee Dee’s skirt. The only alternative was to face my back to the stage, which would have been rude.) Despite these incredible seats, and the fact that I love the band, this show wouldn’t crack the top 10 of shows I’ve ever been to. Still, it was damn good.
 I missed Armisen’s surprise comedy/music number, but the reviews I got from the people around me were not favorable. Those who got the joke thought it wasn’t funny; those who didn’t get the joke were jealous of me that I got to miss the act.