Review: Vampire Weekend at Barclays Center

New York Times

Vampire Weekend used to be a millenial buzzword. The band was once just a crew of Columbia University students turned indie rockers, or “those white privileged kids masquerading as Afro-beat hipsters,” or the infamous recipients of the Contra cover-girl’s legal wrath. They made music that was fun to bop to. Even their depreciators would covertly tap a toe to tracks off their freshman break-out album, Vampire Weekend. Then suddenly, Barack Obama was contacting them to soundtrack his 2012 campaign – nay, placing them within a pantheon alongside Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. Their songs popped up in commercials and cable TV shows. They became Hipster Runoff darlings as “Vampy Weeks” and ultimately, a dorm-room name.

What, now, has become of Vampire Weekend? Based on my experiences at their September 20th concert beneath the massive dome at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, I’d say commercial success. And on a grander scale, these artists once known as the “whitest band in America” have achieved something even the indiest of artists seek: timelessness. Their sound has grown ageless. I was astounded by the show’s diverse crowd, from 14-year-olds with chaperones to 40-year-old couples. Vampire Weekend’s performance appeased this wide viewership; even the otherwise mopey thirty-something tech guy in the seat next to me, attending the show alone, danced and smiled uncontrollably throughout the entire set.

First opener Sky Ferreira looked puny as she floated on stage before the 18,000+ capacity venue. Perhaps due to her recent and media-torched criminal drug charges or her lo-fi sadgirl vibe, Ferreira’s otherwise stirring tracks fell lifeless on the standing room floor. Next, Solange took the stage and evoked smirks and a few hip thrusts with her own energetic dancing and neo-soul sound.

But if number of audience members standing up in ticketed seating is any metric of a band’s live worth, then VW’s powerful, spirit-lifting show was worth the fat $60 ticket price several times over. I danced for the full duration of the show. I could barely see frontman Ezra Koening as he awkwardly hop-skipped around the stage, yet I still felt his energy. Vampire Weekend has stayed humble, something few bands with wunderkind beginnings can boast.

They began their performance with all the classics: “Cousins,” followed by “White Sky,” WASPy favorite “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and then the two standout tracks off new album Modern Vampires of the City, “Diane Young” and “Unbelievers.” It’s always refreshing when musicians know their gold, never holding out on their audience by playing rare tracks instead of singles. The rest of the show featured every other recognizable song; the rapid succession of such energetic tracks inspired the feeling in me that VW couldn’t possibly have yet another fun, dancey song on deck. And over the course of their 20 songs plus three encore performances, they indeed continued to deploy snappy sets like rounds off a cap gun.

Unbelievable! I was thinking to myself, as my body kept launching into gyrations with each next song. I was one of their unbelievers, I suppose, one of those who have still not fully realized their steep ascent into fame. But after a night inside Barclay’s, that great Giza-like sports cathedral, I felt the same as I would have felt after sitting court-side at a rousing Knicks game. While their fans totaled maybe three-fourths of the venue’s seating potential, Vampire Weekend’s music had undoubtedly managed to fill the space. Most of their songs catapulted into high volume after just twenty second interludes in between, but Koening stopped suddenly after the more down-tempo “Step” to announce, “This song’s called ‘Horchata.’” The moment felt sharply ironic, yet endearing in its gratuitousness. At this point, Vampire Weekend need not announce any of its songs; we already know. Exclamations from the seats around me of “Oh, this one’s my favorite!” or “YES! Can’t believe they’re playing this” peppered their set. But Koening seemed as surprised himself as we were to find that a little indie band of boys taking the Core Curriculum had morphed into the headliners at one of New York City’s largest venues. And they headlined boldly at that. Using lots of pedals, loud synths, and a highly amplified drum kit, the guys made their brand of East Coast alt-pop feel capable of stadium rock status.

On the tail end of the show, VW took an unexpected turn: a cover of Blur’s “Song #2.” Chris Baio launched into the signature chugging bass line and everyone in the audience bounced around, shouting out their woo-hoos. That raucous song never gets old. It was a particularly meaningful choice for a late-set cover; Vampire Weekend, it seems, still has not gotten old either, even after seven years of churning out college radio favorites. Koening told the crowd that this show felt like “the unofficial new album release party,” and indeed New York has warmly welcomed VW back with open ears. This time though, it’s not just NYU, New School, or Columbia kids blasting leaked tracks from their dorm rooms. Startup guys are watching the video for “Diane Young” in their cubicles. Newlyweds were hitting up Barclay’s that night for a fun Friday date. This might mean indie pop is officially mainstream. But more immediately, this does means that Vampire Weekend has officially cemented itself as an American mainstay.

Alison Greenberg