First, to set the scene, a few choice quotes from a 2006 email Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio tweeted hours before the band headlined Barclays Center on Friday: “Our sound can best be described as a mix of 60s rock, African music, Elvis Costello and perhaps a touch of The Walkmen.” “We’ve mostly gigged in the Columbia University area but have also played at the Brooklyn Lyceum.” “We would love to play Pete’s Candy Store anytime staring in August.” “Our current NYC draw is around 35.”
Seven years later and they’ve got themselves playing to a hometown crowd—or, to “a lot of friends, a few enemies,” as frontman Ezra Koenig put it while surveying the room with a coy smile—at a venue laughably bigger than Pete’s Candy Store in support of an album they’ve dedicated to New York City. Given the situation, they could’ve wrung the show dry with career-milestone indulgence. There were signs throughout that they acknowledged the significance—multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij brought his parents, Ezra broke into uncharacteristically surprised smiles at the response to early career songs like “A-Punk,” and Chris Tomson snapped pictures of the crowd from behind his drum kit (and, because he’s a baller, rotated through five eras of Nets jerseys as opposed to sticking with his usual black-and-white one)—but as their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, attests, they’re not ones to dwell on where they’ve been. Instead, they’re hellbent on making the now sound really good.
Entering the stage to blaring trumpets like heroes returning home from war (they took the stage to “Let Me Clear My Throat” on their last album tour, in case you needed another indication that things have changed for them), they dive into a spot-on replication of ever-manic “Cousins” with that guitar riff that sounds like it’s spiraling out of control. Soon, there’s the batshit-crazy vocal effects on “Diane Young;” the chopped-up hip-hop beats on “Ya Hey;” even the spoken-voice interlude on “Finger Back,” which, for the record, Ezra deserves props for attempting in a live setting, even if the words don’t stream out as one elongated, silky syllable as they do on the album and he skips over (arguably) the best part of the track, a subsequent 10 second-span of contorting the word “blood” over and over again.
Still, if there are changes from how songs sound in their recorded form, it’s typically the rhythm section meeting the scale of the venue or Rostam’s added-on flairs. Tomson fills the cavernous space by hitting extra hard and Baio eggs the tempo up on already quick songs. “Horchata,” on the other hand, extends into a cheerleader synth-clap jive while Rostam sweeps in to finish off heartbreak ballad “Hannah Hunt” with a torched Hendrix guitar solo. To keep from getting too think piece-y, they opt to leave out the sound of ticking clocks on album underdog “Don’t Lie” and adorn its deep-rutted groove with a seesawing guitar that eventually segues into the grungy opening chords of Blur’s “Song 2,” accompanied here with far prettier “woohoos” than Damon Albarn’s originals. (Neither of these last two selections are played the next night during the band’s headlining set at Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest in Baltimore because, hey, hometown show, suckers.)
Meanwhile, Ezra—he’s the one who starts the show wearing a green blazer from Marc Jacobs 2013 fall line under a white-on-white shirt-pants combo—rarely strays the course with his vocals. Everything is bright and brisk, keeping the crowed in the palm of his elegantly gesticulating right hand, keeping them from thinking too much about what he’s actually saying. Because when you write lines like, “There’s a headstone right in front of you, and everyone I know,” it wouldn’t have been wrong, exactly, to have lingered on the notion for a moment. “Hannah Hunt” needed to have been just a hair slower to simmer in its sadness. “You ought to spare your face the razor/Because no one’s going to spare their time for you,” from album opener “Obvious Bicycle,” doesn’t sound as dejected when sung in an arena, even when sung against nothing but a blocky sample and minimal piano. And so they kept the crowd in the present, refusing to lose anyone to thoughts of the past or future.
For them to have milked the career-milestone meaning on Friday would have discredited the natural progression of a band who by their own accord and musical merits have evolved into one that wears designer jackets, plays under white Greco-Roman columns suspended from the ceiling (there were white Greco-Roman columns suspended from the ceiling), and walks onstage to trumpets. They made it to Barclays by keeping with their own sense of time.
The band did eventually play Pete’s in the summer of 2006, by the way. But likely in off-brand blazers.
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.