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In concert: Vampire Weekend at Constitution Hall

Vampire WeekendIt was a pleasant Saturday night at Constitution Hall with Vampire Weekend, not much more. (All photos by Michael Temchine/FTWP)

By Mark Jenkins

In today's jaded pop market, it takes a pretty big band to sell out a venue the size of DAR Constitution Hall. So Vampire Weekend, which attracted a capacity crowd to the 3,700-seat auditorium Saturday, must be a pretty big band. Yet it didn't feel quite large enough for the room. The New York quartet's fans filled the hall, but its music didn't.

On the new "Contra," its second album, Vampire Weekend expands its range with electronics, strings and tuned percussion. Yet the music still sounds like an extended riff on Paul Simon's "Graceland'': ebullient Afropop riffs and polyrhythms contrasting bookish Upper West Side lyrics and a high, slightly fragile tenor. The group didn't exactly battle this perception, opening its set with "White Sky," which shows singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig at his most Simon-like. The vocal resemblance was eerie, and the milieu was exact. The song's vignettes evoked Woody Allen's Manhattan, not Joey Ramone's.

(Pretty, somewhat vacant, plus more pictures after the jump.)

Vampire Weekend

If the Weekend is not a punk band - even when performing "A-Punk" - it does follow one Ramones precept: concision. It took the quartet a mere 70 minutes to perform 18 songs, which is most of its recorded repertoire.

Prowling the stage in jeans, sneakers and untucked button-down shirts, the musicians did occasionally open up a tune, but such liberties usually lasted only a few beats. Solos highlighted the nimble rhythm section, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, ever so briefly. When Baio, bowing a stand-up bass, took the wheel of "Taxi Cab," his solo quickly became an outro, and was gone.

Although it's a new sort (or at least new generation) of indie-rock group, the Weekend has the familiar problem of translating its recorded material onstage. Even at the fast tempos of "Walcott" or "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," the music sounded a little prissy, and "Contra" suggests that producer, keyboardist and guitarist Rostam Batmanglij's heart is in the studio. The group's stage set also stressed its recordings: It consisted of chandeliers that evoked the cover of the first album, and a blowup of the cover of the second, complete with the band name in Futura, the typeface Koenig celebrates in "Holiday."

Koenig and the Washington-bred Batmanglij used the customary tactics to involve the crowd, mentioning "D.C." a lot and repeatedly asking people to scream or sing along. The audience was cooperative, and clearly pleased to hear its favorite Weekend numbers. But eliciting passion is difficult when the musical highlights are contrapuntal guitar or keyboard ornaments, and the lyrics consider such oddball topics as horchata (a milky beverage made of nuts or grain) and mansard roofs. "I Think UR a Contra" doesn't pack the heat of a political broadside, and the band's occasional love songs tend to be more wistful than carnal.

The Weekend could have expanded its set, and perhaps its range of emotions, with a few covers. But playing other people's songs can be hazardous for a band whose influences are so shallowly submerged. In addition to "Graceland," the band is heavily indebted to late-'70s British new wave and ska-revival acts. The jumpy "Cousins," for example, sounded as if it had been assembled on the chassis of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up."

Such echoes were distracting, even if the band was both lively and lot tighter than it was a few years ago. Saturday's show proved the Weekend can do justice in concert to its more complex new material, which is no small thing. Some groups that achieve nothing more extraordinary than that sell out Verizon Center.

Vampire Weekend

By David Malitz  |  April 5, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Vampire Weekend  
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