Better Than: Madras cocktails and self-loathing at a WASP family gathering. (Probably?)
Enough verbiage has been devoted to poor Vampire Weekend since damn near the band's birth to fill a heavy, ink-and-paper book. (Wait, what are those again?) And for all the things the band projects that can invite attack -- affluence, literacy, uh, happiness -- no hipster website sniping can knock the wind out of its pressed-cotton sails.
This year, of course, the band achieved the unlikely feat of topping the Billboard charts with its sophomore album, Contra. This, in turn, made for a sold-out show last night at the Fillmore Miami Beach that sailed along on a tidal wave of shrieking crowd enthusiasm.
Opening act the Very Best started things out with an appropriately energizing warm-up performance. A London-based duo, the act comprises DJ/producer Radioclit and Malawi-born singer Esau Mwamwaya. This gives them -- let's face it -- an actual authentic claim to the kinds of African sounds subsumed by the evening's headliners.
Again, ignoring all that, the Very Best's sound is joyful, a sort of electrified version of traditional Malawi beats, sung about 80 percent in Chichewa, the country's national language. (Technically, Mwamwaya could be telling us all to screw ourselves, and the crowd would still dance ecstatically, but judging by his genuinely happy smiles, that's doubtful.)
To bridge the cultural chasm, though, the duo incorporates plenty of pop references. Last night, this meant a freestyle over the ubiquitous "Paper Planes" beat, one that nobody really needs to hear again, but that drew the biggest cheers of the Very Best's set.
The Very Best isn't much of a stage "band," with Radioclit mostly tweaking a laptop and forcing Mwamwaya to try to hold the performance down by himself. It's more of a clubby kind of act, but it did the job of working the crowd into a lather ... just in time for Beach House's blend of slightly morose, serene torch songs.
A little surprisingly, there wasn't really a dip in crowd appreciation -- another great thing about this city's always-grateful audiences, particularly the heavily teenage ones. This, despite the fact that, as they told New Times
, Beach House is clearly not about a cult of band member personality, or of pandering to a crowd.
In fact, the band's core members, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, seemed to position themselves as far away from the audience as possible, occupying the back of the stage with only their touring synth player/bassist and drummer a little closer to the crowd. They played a good chunk of their set in darkness, silhouetted only by the glow of three light-up pyramids in the back, and a faux-starry-night scrim of lights stretching towards the ceiling.
This gave the set a gently trippy, sort of planetarium-laser-show-type feel, which only added to the nostalgic, atmospheric sweep of the band's music. It worked, at least for the band's fans. (There were noticeable numbers of bored males around squirming by the set's end, oh well, too bad).
In recordings, especially on Beach House's third and most recent album, Teen Dream, the band's production style is densely layered and exacting. They do an amazing job of re-creating it live, down to the tiniest identical drum fills. The only thing that suffered a bit were Legrand's vocals, which came out a little mush-mouthed, a problem that seemed more like a sound mixing issue than a fault of the band's.
It didn't matter too much, though, as the overall sound was of a drippy kind of warmth, the kind that gets even the band members themselves swaying, eyes closed. Yes, the tempos of the songs are very similar, and relatively slow, but it achieves a particularly sublime mood of near-heartbreak and wistfulness.
For devoted Beach House fans, this was a beautifully far-off performance that alone was almost worth the ticket price of the show. The only complaint: The band devoted nearly all of its too-short set to material from Teen Dream, with the exception of opener "Gila," from its previous album, Devotion. Nothing from its very first record, and no "Heart of Chambers," one of the best and one of the biggest "hits" from Devotion! Beach House, many of us were fans before you signed to Sub Pop. Throw us just one or two bones, please.
Everything was sweetness and light, pretty much, from the men of the hour: Vampire Weekend. With suitably preppy restraint, the band eschewed any kind of stage frills, save for a modest light-up background that occasionally appeared from behind the curtains. They also appeared almost as a parody of the collegiate cliche into which everyone wants to make them, dressed in oxford shirts with the sleeves rolled up, chukka boots, and even, in one case, tie-dye.
Of course, with such a low-melanin, starched look to the entire band, it's kind of hard to ignore all of the Internet's much-rehashed arguments about cultural appropriation. What does it mean, after all, when you sing about Louis Vuitton and people named Blake and Bryn, over an Americanized version of "African" -- an adjective describing an entire continent -- music?
Ugh, it's too much to think about at a pop show, which is essentially what Vampire Weekend delivers, and delivers very well to the endless delight of its fans. Reports of past Vampire Weekend performances have described the band as sometimes going through the perfunctory motions, but last night, frontman Ezra Koenig and company seemed particularly switched-on. It must have helped that they were met with Beatlemania-style screams at nearly every song.
Those songs comprised equal opportunity chunks of both Contra
and the band's 2008 self-titled debut, selected for their relentlessly uptempo pace. No matter how much this comparison gets used, it is true that there would likely be no Vampire Weekend without late-'80s Paul Simon. (Of course it's understandable. Many of us in our mid-/late-20s with boho intellectual parents were, at an impressionable age, similarly hammered with Graceland
and Rhythm of the Saints
The band's performance, then, skipped around on Simon-pioneered, Afrobeat-lite guitar trills, and Koenig's vocal inflections borrowed heavily from Simon's as well. If it's not totally original, though, it's enjoyable, with the only part of the set close to balladry coming the slightly slower "Taxi Cab," near the middle of the set.
In fact, the band's already fast songs sometimes sound even more sped-up live. Its hit "Cousins," particularly, was played at a pace that would probably make the most sense on a college-all-nighter Adderall rush.
It didn't hamper the crowd's nonstop, bouncy dancing though, the result of a palpable excitement missing from more supposedly "serious" and/or "hip" shows. Yes, the audience skewed very young, but this provided for a refreshing energy infusion. Hate on Vampire Weekend all you want, but if they're potentially opening musical gateways for one Taylor Swift or Soulja Boy fan at a time, then we say, party on, dudes.
Personal Bias: As a graduate of NYU, whenever I think about Vampire Weekend and their Columbia pedigree, I can't help but hear a tiny inner voice of withering, irony-laden scorn bringing up the old rivalry. (Privileged, chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling downtown college kids vs. privileged, fleece-vest-wearing uptown Ivy Leaguers! How the fur flies! Have you ever been to a "Columbia bar?" Boo, hiss!)
The Crowd: Largely under 21 -- far under 21 -- and female, willowy, boho chic, impressively enthusiastic, many accompanied by appropriately oxford- or polo-shirted male escorts.
Overheard in the Crowd: "It's her BIRTHDAY! You can't let her down onto the floor level for her BIRTHDAY?!"
For the low price of $55, this thin orange sweater could be yours.
Random Detail: Vampire Weekend offered one of the most aesthetically and financially offensive pieces of merch we've seen in a while: an orange cardigan with faux-Navajo-looking turquoise stripes, offered up for $55.
Random Detail #2: Shout out to the trio of people (one male) who came to the show dressed as sexed-up, ACTUAL vampires.
Beach House Set List:
-"Walk in the Park"
-"Used to Be"
-"10 Mile Stereo"
Vampire Weekend Set List:
-"Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"
-"I Stand Corrected"
-"One (Blake's Got a New Face)"
-"Giving Up the Gun"