On May 16th, Toronto was blessed with clear skies and a cool breeze that kept perspiration at bay. Residents of the city were up in arms about the LCBO strike and you couldn’t walk ten paces without hearing someone grumble something about how the long weekend would be “the worst, EVER” because of this. Those who weren’t voicing their discontent at lack of alcohol were laughing at Rob Ford’s latest in a long string of miscues (He has more in common with the late Amy Winehouse than he lets on).
But a bubble seemed to be wrapped around the Sony Centre and the surrounding area, encasing the good vibes emanating from the fans waiting to see a certain band perform. Fresh off the release of their new album, Modern Vampires of The City, Vampire Weekend were in town for one of the first shows of their loaded tour.
Now nearing their thirties, the quartet seem to be aspiring for greater transparency within their music. Whereas their debut found the fresh-faced group of Ezra Koenig (lead vocals/ guitar), Rostam Batmanglij (keyboard/guitar/backup vocals), Chris Baio (bass/backup dancer), and Chris Tomson (drums) flitting from one cryptic lyrical reference about Cape Cod to another in a joyous medley of ska and Afro-Pop that Nardwuar dubbed “polite punk”, LP3 (as the new record was dubbed by hardcore fans) finds the band confronting such solemn issues as mortality and religion with the acute self-awareness that comes with age. To be clear, Vampire Weekend have not morphed into Sigur Rós’ equally grim American counterparts. They still retain their trademark sense of witty humour and ability to poke fun at themselves, as evident in ‘Diane Young’, where the name acts as a homophone for the comparatively darker ‘Dying Young’ and Koenig’s vocals are modulated to the point of being at home in an Alvin & The Chipmunks installment.
Oft-criticized for their purported “whiteness” (an ill-researched claim, for Batmanglij is of Persian descent…most of the scorn has been levelled by white bloggers, no less), the Dubs rolled with the weak punches and created an inspired portrait of 21st century American life. Quite appropriately, they chose to decorate MVOTC’s cover with an eerie shot of New York City taken by Times photographer, Neal Boenzi, on the smoggiest day in its history.
Compared to their first foray into Toronto within the diminutive confines of the Horseshoe Tavern in 2008, that day’s venture into the cavernous Sony Centre was characteristic of the band’s career trajectory — always moving forward in ambitious leaps and bounds (although it has to be said that Tomson is an exception to this, having ALWAYS hit the drums hard). Just like LP3’s cover, the scene at the merch table was apocalyptic, but in the opposite way with droves upon droves of fans pressed against each other, intent upon securing some covetable gear (I managed to snag the floral t-shirt along with a poster).
$40 later, I was in my seat and a bit irked by my position 10 rows away from the stage. Sure, it was a good view, but why the Sony Centre didn’t remove the orchestra section seats in favour of a general admission pit to allow for more people AND a funner time as they did for Jack White is beyond me. One day, Ticketmaster will have to adopt an alternative to the crapshoot that is purchasing tickets online. To have one’s position for a show determined by how quickly one can refresh a browser is a cruel twist of fate, especially for fans who had eagerly cut class or work to access the presale.
Luckily, High Highs were there to soothe the audience’s collective pain. The Aussie outfit had the unenviable role (depending on how you look at it) of filling in for HAIM, who had dropped out of the tour at the last minute to complete their first record with wunderkind producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who worked extensively with VW on LP3). Knowing that it is near impossible to keep the attention of preteen girls longing to be swept into Koenig’s embrace, the High Highs chose to instead lull them into a blissful reverie. The buoyant vibrancy of ‘Open Season’ hinted at why Vampire Weekend’s touring personnel had chosen the Sony Centre as that night’s venue — the sound was fantastic. After a brief set, the High Highs left the stage to polite applause, with roadies taking their place immediately to begin setting up for the main attraction.
Ezra’s love of hip-hop music has been well-documented, and the affection has manifested itself in performances, where the band has walked on to tracks like ‘All I Do Is Win’, ‘F*ckin’ Problem’, and ‘Neato’. But as they so often do, Vampy Weeks threw a curveball and made an ostentatious statement by sauntering to their instruments while Mussorgsky’s ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ played. It was a subtle, yet hilarious wink at detractors who peg the band as a bunch of highbrow, yacht riding, WASPS.
The entire audience rose to their feet and remained standing for the rest of the show. Not missing a step, the four band-members took their instruments in hand and launched into a breakneck (that will seem funny later on in this piece) rendition of ‘Cousins’ that kept everyone on their toes. It was only after playing fan-favourite ‘White Sky’ that Koenig paused to address the crowd. The brief “Hi, Toronto” was enough to send all the female adolescents in attendance into swooning fits of exultation.
Strumming the opening notes of ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, Koenig initiated a boisterous sing-a-long in which the entire diverse audience of teenagers and retirees alike took part. The much quieter ‘I Stand Corrected’ provided everyone the chance to admire the elaborately designed set. During their last visit to Toronto (see the video below), Koenig had bemoaned that, “Normally we raise some beautiful chandeliers. Unfortunately, the Canadian Customs thought there was something kind of fishy about them…”, but the band seemed to have had no trouble at the border this time.
Four gigantic Corinthian-style pillars were suspended from the ceiling and decorated with intricate volutes (hey, art history class was worth it), while a gigantic mirror hung in the midst of it all, giving a view of a different band-member’s back depending on where you stood. It was a grand arrangement, and surely deserved by a band at the pinnacle of their success (134,000 copies of MVOTC were sold in its first week, securing the band’s second Billboard #1 album out of the gates, the first being 2010’s Contra). Lastly, a white curtain hung at the back of the stage for most of the show until it dropped to dramatically reveal the floral background found on the band’s new t-shirts.
What most were thirsty for was for the band to play some new tracks, and the band alleviated some of that anxiety when they followed ‘Corrected’ with brash punk banger ‘Diane Young’ and exquisite harpsichord-driven ‘Step’. The first made clear why their had been a warning to those who suffer from epilepsy at the doors — the flickering strobe lights were bordering on convulsive. Although the tone was light-hearted as Batmanglij fiddled with instruments to alter the pitch of Koenig’s voice, one could still sense a touch of melancholy when the frontman sang, “Nobody knows what the future holds, And it’s bad enough just getting old”.
After Koenig ditched his Epiphone Sheraton II in favour of an acoustic guitar and Batmanglij sidled up to his keyboard, there was little doubt as to which song they’d be playing next. The ensemble had first played ‘Unbelievers’ on July 12, 2012 in Cleveland after which a bootleg recording had circulated the internet. Naturally, by this time everyone knew the words. The refrain of “We know the fire awaits unbelievers, All of the sinners the same, Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train” sounded twice as infectious with Baio and Tomson inviting the audience to clap along to the final bars.
Contra-opener, ‘Horchata’ was next. Before beginning, Batmanglij made clear that Vampire Weekend are more inclusive than the elitists they are pegged as. He paused to teach the audience how to sing the call and response portion of the song. The resounding “woahhhhhhhhhhhh” created a thundering din, but fans needed no help recalling the lyrics to one of the wordiest songs in VW’s repertoire.
Without pausing to catch their breath, the band played an instrumental version of ‘Shots’ (yes, really) that served as a bridge to their next song, the baroque-inspired ‘Everlasting Arms’. This was another one that had been changing hands on the internet since being performed in Australia back in January and it got a loud cheer.
Up next was the ethereal ‘Ya Hey’. Though the title might make some recall perhaps THE most paramount pop song of the 21st century, Vampire Weekend have succeeded in making a unique smash of their own. With Tomson anchoring the percussion-driven track, Koenig sang lyrics that were rife with religious symbolism – “Oh, good God, The faithless they don’t love you” – all the while swaying his hips in melodic fashion, to the delighted screeches of female onlookers. This time around, Batmanglij altered the pitch of his own vocals as he played the keyboard while the always-energetic Baio also chimed in on the chorus.
Koenig addressed the crowd following ‘Ya Hey’, saying that although the seated venue did not allow for a bona fide mosh pit, he’d be happy to invite everyone to move around a little for the next one as long as they remained “within reason”. With that, Koenig played the well-known opening chords to ‘A-Punk’ and sent the crowd into an extended 2-minute furor. Many streamed into the aisles and made a beeline for the stage, but were stopped short of creating an actual mosh pit by burly security guards.
The band ended the regular set with a frenetic rendition of ‘Giving Up The Gun’. Fans were not kept waiting long for more. When the Dubs did come out, they treated the crowd to a lengthy 4-song encore. The 6-minute sprawl that is ‘Diplomat’s Son’ sounded even better in a live setting, with the whole venue chanting the chorus. As he had been doing all night, Baio busted out his trademark dance moves, proving that bassists don’t have to be rim-rod straight caricatures of “cool”.
Next was their debut single, ‘Mansard Roof’, which had been the shortest song in their discography until the release of ‘Young Lion’. Despite its meager length, the afro-pop influenced number is also one of the band’s most fun, a fact that was reinforced by the smiles on the faces of the eager audience. Batmanglij took the reins upon conclusion and said that they’d given up trying to teach the audience the words to the next one. The band then used the widely recognizable intro to Kool & The Gang’s ‘Hollywood Swinging’ as a segue into the oddly similar ‘One (Blake’s Got A New Face)”.
With that, Koenig said, “Now anybody who’s ever seen us before knows that we have a traditional farewell song. And it’s a song about leaving Cape Cod tonight.” But ‘Walcott’ really needed no introduction. Though more conventional-sounding than tracks like ‘Kwassa Kwassa’, it is Vampire Weekend at their most exuberant. At many times throughout the song, the rambunctious audience threatened to drown out Koenig’s vocals with their own. Many took delight at screaming the expletive-laden lyrics right along with frontman. As is the case with many songs’ live incarnations, the inflections that Koenig placed in his voice (see 3:18 and 3:42 in the video below) made this ‘Walcott’ seem better than its studio counterpart.
Before parting, Koenig yelled “Thank you, Toronto” and joined Baio in handing out spare picks to those who were lucky enough to be in the front-row. After it was all said and done, Vampire Weekend received a lengthy standing ovation from a crowd which, among others, held Joffrey Lupul of the recently eliminated Toronto Maple Leafs. If you are among those unlucky few who haven’t seen Vampire Weekend in concert yet, step to it before they’ve graduated to playing in impersonal arenas.
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
I Stand Corrected
Giving Up the Gun
One (Blake’s Got a New Face)
Disclaimer: the following is me on some major fangirl sh*t
My friend and I arrived at the venue very early with the hopes that we would catch the band hanging out by their tourbus. There were some other fans there. Not 15 minutes later, I turned to my left and muttered an expletive as I see Ezra crossing the street by himself. He was in good spirits and took photos and signed autographs, all the while making small talk with everyone. I lingered on the outskirts of the group, not wanting to appear overeager. When it came time for me to meet him, I shook his hand and he said “Hey, Tomi”, remembering me from NML. I congratulated him on the new record and he received the praise warmly. After having him sign some things and getting a picture, I introduced him to my homie, Chuma (FOLLOW YA BOI). Knowing that Ez is a big Drake fan, I mentioned how the rapper follows my friend on Twitter and he was visibly impressed; “Oh, wow. Is Drake in the city? We should tell him to come to the show.” Following that encounter, Ez had to go. No one else from the band came out, with the exception of Baio, who popped outside for a few seconds in some tiny shorts before heading back in.
Once the show finished, most people headed home, but a large number of fans stuck around behind the venue. After an hour of patiently waiting, we were all instructed to line up alongside a building. Moments afterward, CT stepped out from behind the bus and cheers erupted from the crowd. He methodically made his way down the line, and soon he was standing right in front of me. This was my first time meeting the O.G., so I introduced myself and asked if I could get a picture.
Baio was next up. He had changed out of the clothes he wore during the show, and understandably, as he works up a major sweat on stage. I congratulated him on his recent marriage, the new album, and finding out he’s related to Steve Buscemi. He laughed and admitted that it had been “a hectic six months”. Without sounding sus, Baio was a really sweet guy.
Ezra was next up, and everyone who hadn’t met him before the show went crazy. All the girls lost their cool and started screaming as if John Lennon had been resurrected from the dead.
He came out nonchalantly chomping on an apple. When he got to me, he asked if my last name (Miloš) was Czech and how to pronounce it. I corrected him saying it was Croatian and told him if he wanted to be proper, it’s pronounced: “mil-osh”. Then I asked to get a picture with him doing his trademark pose and he kindly obliged.
Most of the crowd left after Ezra went back inside, but a few of us stuck around to meet Rostam. Even though there were only around 20 people left, he got a big cheer. I hesitantly asked if he remembered me and he replied with “yeah Tomi, what’s up?” before signing my albums and ticket. He told me I reminded him of Dave from Chromeo. Unfortunately, we got photobombed by some drunk bro from Thunder Bay.
While he made his way down the line of eager fans, I befriended the band’s tour manager, Mike. We chatted about the current tour, The National’s new album, and what day the band would be playing Osheaga (at the time, it was confidential news and he asked me to keep it to myself, but now it’s up on the festival site). After I pressed him about when VW would be back, he let it slip that they would likely be back this winter and playing a two-night stand at Massey Hall. Later, Rostam came back over and asked what I was studying in university and what I wanted to do with my life. While I won’t transcribe the conversation, I will say that it was one the most inspiring I’ve ever had in my short life. Before leaving, he agreed to shout out some V-Dubs fans in a video.
And that concludes my Vampire Weekend adventure. Check out upcoming show dates here.
SEE Y’ALL AT OSHEAGA, WHERE THE DUBS ARE PLAYING ON AUGUST 2ND.