CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — When Vampire Weekend arrived in Charlotte Saturday for its first-ever show in the largest city in North Carolina, there was no guarantee that the concert wouldn’t be canceled.
Earlier in the day, a violent storm system rolled through the area, razing enormous trees and cutting off power to almost 40,000 residents. Stop lights were out of commission throughout the city, which made the routine act of driving to the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Pavilion — where Vampire Weekend was set to play — a dangerous undertaking.
But then the rains let up, the winds died down and people began pouring into the pavilion (capacity: 5,000) by the hundreds. The bulk of those people, it should be noted, were aging Millenials, but there was also a healthy smattering of Gen Z’ers and the occasional Gen X’er.
The attention of their focus? Ezra Koenig, a former Ivy Leaguer and bowl cut-rocker who has since matured into one of the wittiest songwriters of our time. He’s the creative force behind the band, which has put out four albums beginning in 2008. The most recent release,“Father of the Bride” — a follow-up to 2013’s universally adored “Modern Vampires of the City” — dropped last month to critical acclaim, despite bearing little resemblance to its brooding (but still somewhat bouncy) predecessor.
Koenig, once a scholarly punk, of sorts, has grown up a bit. He’s now a 35-year old father. The bowl cut is long gone, replaced with a slicker style befitting a frontman of ever-growing fame. The gimmicky-yet-infectious Afro-rhythms of his band’s first two albums (and, to an extent, its third) have been usurped by more traditional songcraft. Koenig’s lyrics, once-labyrinthine and multi-layered, have taken a turn for the direct.
None of this artistic growth, however, has diminished the quality of the songs. “Father of the Bride,” an 18-track odyssey that clocks in 58 minutes, is bursting with grooves and hooks and earworms. There are country-western style duets, Beatles-esque melodies, at least one song that sounds like sitcom theme, piano ballads and even a few numbers that call to mind Phish and The Grateful Dead. Despite the eclecticism, Koenig somehow threads it all together into a cohesive musical quilt unlike anything he’s attempted before.
The result is perhaps the most widely-appealing Vampire Weekend record to date. Though there were scant baby boomers in the crowd at Charlotte, it’s not a stretch to imagine an original Dead Head or an aging Beatles aficionado digging Koenig’s latest effort.
Embracing the jam
Armed with this new material, Koenig and his bandmates hit the road, and on Saturday they arrived in Charlotte for the first time. They took the stage not long after the clouds had cleared.
Over the next two-and-a-half hours, Koenig put his unique stage presence on display. He’s in control at all times, yet never rigid or overly workmanlike. What he lacks in Mercury-esque bombast he makes up for with a studied maestro sensibility. He’s a charming frontman who can hold the attention of a large crowd, while also remainly acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He knows when to share the spotlight with his talented band members, and the one who stole the show most frequently in Charlotte was touring guitarist Brian Robert Jones.
Donning an impressive afro and mesh Reebok shorts, Jones looks like a guy you might find sleeping on your couch the morning after a long Saturday night. But there’s nothing average about his playing style. By turns soaring, nuanced and deliciate, Jones’ fretwork takes Koenig’s tunes to previously unconsidered realms. Several album versions of “Father of the Bride” songs hint at a Phish/ Grateful Dead aesthetic, but in a live setting, these jam band impulses expanded upon.
That’s not to say Vampire Weekend has gone full-on Widespread Panic. Not every song is a 27-minute acid trip, and thank God for that. Instead, the band chooses to jam when a jam seems necessary, like at the end of “2021” and “Sunflower,” two of the shorter songs on “Father of the Bride.” Koenig even busted out a talk box, ala Peter Frampton, to bring “2021” to a close. The effect was undeniably endearing: here’s a guy unabashedly trying new things, and succeeding more often than not.
A delicate balance between brevity and expansiveness prevailed throughout the evening. The band walked that tightrope almost perfectly, never once tumbling into indulgence or tired repetition.
I am an aging Millenial/”WALCOTT!”
And me? Well, I watched from stage right with my wife, behind a metal railing next to the speaker, which likely did irreversible damage to my left eardrum.
It had been awhile since I — an aging Millenial myself — had attended a large-scale concert of a band popular in the here-and-now, and I’d forgotten all the wonderful joys such a setting provides.
Take, for instance, the large, sweaty kid — I say “kid,” but he was probably in his early 20s — who stood directly to my left for the entire show, slouching on a girl who was ostensibly his partner and shouting requests for “WALCOTT!” (a much-beloved punkish song off the band’s eponymous debut) every three minutes. Eventually, another kid — approximate age: 21 — in front of me told him to “shut the fuck up.”
“But I want to hear Walcott,” the sweaty kid moaned.
“We get it,” the other kid replied. “But shut the fuck up.”
The loudmouth’s presence didn’t damper the night’s springy mood, and neither did the smell of raw sewage that seemed to be growing stronger throughout the evening. I sang the words I knew — about 50 percent of them — as the band ripped through a well-balanced set of old and new material.
Koenig took three requests at the end of the show, all from people wearing bucket hats, which is the designated choice of apparel the frontman has used as selection criteria throughout the tour. The first tune was something off the “Twilight” soundtrack that I’d never heard before. The second was “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” requested fittingly by a kid on some guy’s shoulders. A solid choice.
The third, by God, was “Walcott.” It was the final song of the night.
“That was on our set list already, so it’s not really a request,” Koenig said. “But you know, here it goes.”
With that, three enormous inflatable globes — like the one on the Farm Aid-esque “Father of the Bride” cover — were released into the crowd. And then the band played “Walcott,” and everyone in attendance (especially the sweaty kid) had a grand old time, with globes bouncing all over the place and concerns about the day’s storms utterly forgotten.