Saturday, September 11, 2010

Vampire Weekend at, uh, Barnes & Noble

Originally published by the New York Press on January 22, 2010

It wasn’t clear when exactly Vampire Weekend was booked to perform as part of Barnes & Noble’s Upstairs at the Square series. Surely it happened well before the band’s new album, Contra, topped the charts upon release. That’s not the college rock charts or one of the other charmingly quaint but ultimately meaningless charts cooked up over the past few decades to make sure everyone releasing an album in any genre got a big, warm hug. No, as the band dutifully took to the stage on Thursday night, Vampire Weekend had the top selling album in the entire country. 

One of the larger Barnes & Noble bookstores in the city, the four-story location in Union Square is ideally suited for the series, which matches writers and musicians for an hour of music and conversation. The fourth-floor event space nestled between the history and music books is routinely stuffed with rows of chairs, and it’s clear someone at the venerable bookstore had caught wind of the Billboard and iTunes charts, because they’d added even more chairs and a rudimentary system of theater ropes that for a less-polite atmosphere would have proved entirely useless to hold the wolves at bay. In the case of Vampire Weekend—paired with Ghanaian-born, Jamaican-raised poet Kwame Dawes—the ropes did their job, even as the band’s fans continued piling up the escalator and weaving their way further and further toward the back of the cavernous room. 

Host Katherine Lanpher stuck to the script, asking a clumsily crafted question about Contra that attempted to frame it in the construct of the evening before the band broke into an acoustic version of “Horchata,” the first official salvo from the album which dropped as a free download on the group’s website. 

It’s an assumption one has to make, even with a band thats album is such a runaway success: If you’re unfamiliar with Vampire Weekend’s music, it’s sort of an intellectual mix of new wave and African influences. When the debut arrived two years ago, it polarized indie nerds, some of whom were repelled by the proudly Ivy League with the willfully ridiculous name and the smug Benetton-geared mix of music and fashion. Others lightened the fuck up and bought it hook, line and sinker. It was January then, and cold, and the enthusiasm and homogenized exoticism in the music felt like several rays of sunshine at just the right time. The formula worked well enough then that the band repeated the process this time around, both in the musical aesthetic and in timing the release to arrive when a bit of warmth can go a long way. And clearly it went a long way this time around. 

When Vampire Weekend plays its music, as it did at the Bowery Ballroom two nights earlier and on the stage at Barnes & Noble, the group’s charm is undeniable. Frontman Ezra Koenig is kind of a spaz, but an effective one, and the wide smile on drummer Chris Tomson’s face as he stumbles through semi-complex rhythms on a floor tom and tambourine makes it hard not to root for these guys. It helps that the music is not only catchy, but also rather good. 

It very nearly didn’t work during Thursday night’s show. Vampire Weekend’s success brought with it too many fans, not only for the space, but for an event that relies heavily on both the sophistication and grace of its audience. Past performances, available for viewing as this will soon be, on the Barnes & Noble website, show a reserved crowd who buys into the inherent pretensions of the whole thing. It feels like a television show, one shown on PBS. And for the hundreds of kids craning their necks over bookshelves for a glance at their new indie heroes, PBS is meaningless. They wanted to scream and maybe dance a little. They didn’t want an intellectual discourse. They wanted Vampire Weekend. And that’s what they got, but not without Dawes. 

It didn’t look like it was going to work, but then it did, and credit should go not only to Vampire Weekend, but also to Dawes, a charismatic poet who earned the respect of at the very least the kids up front by reciting a handful of poems, the best of which, “A Caliban is Born”, was based on Shakespeare. More importantly, Dawes included Vampire Weekend in his conversation, and the crowd. It was enough for the roughly 200 people up near the front to sit and take notice, though a disrespectful murmur from the back of the room continued throughout.

In all, Vampire Weekend performed just four songs, all acoustic, and all quite effective in their stripped down forms. “White Sky,” which the band has been playing out for more than two years followed “Horchata,” and two songs from the first record, “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” closed out the event to as rapturous a response as the fourth floor is ever likely to hear.

The band not only sold itself through their music, but also through conversation. Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij recalled a conversation with Paul Simon on the set of 
Saturday Night Live in which the legendary artist absolved Vampire Weekend of having bitten Graceland, and Koenig described Dawes’ favorite Contratrack, “Diplomat’s Son”, as having begun life as “a weird, violent boarding school revenge fantasy.”

While it sometimes felt as though half of Manhattan was there on the fourth floor, not all fans of Vampire Weekend made the trip all the way up. Nine-year old fan Nolan Smith talked his mother Tamara into bringing him to the event, but he was distracted by the 
Pokemon Ultimate Handbook and never made it past the second floor. Still, he enjoyed the music.

“They sounded good,” said Nolan. “They sounded just like the iPod.”

It didn’t seem as though it was going to work, but then it did. And for all their talk of being able to play the kind of small venues they came up through in addition to larger theaters, it looks as though the latter is the direction in which Vampire Weekend is heading. The crowd at Barnes & Noble showed a little taste of that, and to their credit, Vampire Weekend somehow managed to retain a sense of crowd intimacy in spite of the size. It worked against the odds on Thursday night, and it should serve the group well heading into the future.