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Concert review: Vampire Weekend provides spirited performance of new, past hits at Hollywood Bowl

Vampire Weekend performs in front of a gray backdrop somewhat resembling a large cavern. The indie pop and rock band played to a sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday on the latest stop of their “Only God Was Above Us Tour.” (Michael Gallagher/Assistant Photo editor)

“Only God Was Above Us Tour”

Vampire Weekend

Hollywood Bowl

June 12

By Reid Sperisen

June 13, 2024 8:20 p.m.

After nearly two decades, Vampire Weekend is still performing with the same nerdy charm of a college band.

The indie pop and rock group, which formed at Columbia University in 2006, delivered both skillful musicianship and summery vibes in its sold-out performance Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. The band – composed of frontman Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson – is on the road promoting their April album “Only God Was Above Us.” Accompanied by their charismatic backing band and several statement-making instrumental solos, the band successfully introduced fans to their newest LP while mixing in cuts from their previous albums across a dynamic 29-song setlist.

The show opened with the exuberant one-two punch of “Holiday” and “Cousins” singles off the band’s 2010 sophomore LP, “Contra.” Light blue and white lights flashed as the band performed, with Koenig taking center stage in a monochromatic pale gray outfit. During the verses of “Cousins,” Koenig sporadically paused his strumming to playfully gesture to the audience. The 2007 deep cut “Ladies of Cambridge” continued the upbeat energy set by the first two songs as the warm lighting basked the stage in hues of gold.

A flashing yellow strobe light signaled a transition toward the night’s first trio of songs from “Only God Was Above Us.” During the contemplative “Ice Cream Piano,” the black curtain emblazoned with white font reading “VAMPIRE WEEKEND” fell, revealing a backdrop that somewhat resembled a large gray cavern, while “Classical” featured an expressionist dance solo. Koenig ominously repeated the line “I know once it’s lost it’s never found” during the haunting “Connect,” taking breaks from the song’s lyrics to shout out the band’s other members and allow bass and piano solos space to breathe.

After the chirpy “White Sky,” the concert hit a rough patch with the next few songs. Koenig’s jolted delivery of the “Do you want to fuck like you know I do?” lyric in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” landed awkwardly, lacking the boyish humor that might have made the line more endearing in the band’s early years. Two tracks from 2019’s “Father of the Bride,” which is rightfully perceived as the group’s weakest project, followed with the white and blue lighting theme that was recycled through most of the set. “This Life” was also fairly forgettable, and the distorted and squelchy bass on “Sunflower” could not save it from continuing the lull. However, the entire band impressively harmonized by playing the same “Sunflower” riff in synchrony across several different instruments, including saxophone, guitar, violin and drums.

[Related: Album review: Vampire Weekend’s ‘Only God Was Above Us’ embraces beauty in chaos]

The band recovered their momentum spectacularly with “Sympathy,” despite it also being off “Father of the Bride.” It was the first moment in the night when Koenig stepped back from the microphone for a few minutes and the whole group was able to concentrate on a hedonistic, unrestrained pursuit of the groove. Deep purple lighting drenched the stage for an extended violin intro before the saxophone and guitars kicked in, filling the arena with delectable funky instrumentation that stretched on for several minutes. “Sympathy” embodied the confidence and professionalism of the band as they played freely with more experimental sounds while still providing the audience with a fully formed and lush composition.

Several songs later, producer Ariel Rechtshaid joined the jam session on stage. Wearing a black leather jacket and a blue Dodgers baseball cap, Rechtshaid seamlessly melded with the rest of the group as he picked up a guitar and bobbed along in unison with Koenig and Baio for “Capricorn” and “Gen-X Cops.” Koenig credited the producer for helping make the sound of “Only God Was Above Us” come to fruition.

Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, wearing a monochromatic gray outfit, pauses from playing his honey-colored guitar to grip the microphone with his right hand and look directly at the crowd. The band's lead singer led bassist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson and a backing band through a 29-song setlist that featured entries from across the group's nearly two-decade career. (Michael Gallagher/Assistant Photo editor)

One of the fun touches of the night was the band’s commitment to incorporate ska influences into some of their past songs. Ska is a lively genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s as an offshoot of rhythm and blues, preceding reggae. Both “Ottoman” and “Giving Up the Gun” received ska renditions in tribute to the opening acts Voodoo Glow Skulls and The English Beat. Vampire Weekend’s carefree aura continued the legacy of these bands and other Southern California ska trailblazers like No Doubt by capturing the breeziness and levity the genre epitomizes.

The closing number of the main set was another highlight, as the eight-minute “Hope” was reimagined over the course of more than 10 minutes. Before he began, Koenig paused to teach the audience the words to its chorus. Simultaneously cinematic and contemplative, “Hope” contorted from being mysterious and brooding before exploding into a cathartic and anthemic track with a militant bass and forceful percussion. Koenig gave his most evocative vocal performance of the night with his desperate tone as if he was searching for hope. The lighting was utilized perfectly, as the stage was dark except for a lone spotlight behind Koenig’s head that outlined his silhouette, creating the illusion of a halo.

[Related: Concert review: girl in red excites in passionate, vibrant performance at Greek Theatre]

After “Hope,” the band returned for an encore and accepted audience suggestions for songs by other artists to play. The group tried to satiate fans with partial covers of Steely Dan’s “Peg,” Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” and The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” before hustling to finish their last song before the 11:00 p.m. curfew. In spite of Koenig’s haste, the finale of “Walcott” was a blissful delight, as the effervescent track remains one of the standouts in the band’s entire discography.

Even with the majesty and grandeur of moments like “Sympathy,” “Hope” and “Walcott,” the concert felt stylistically and thematically similar to a set that might be expected of an above-average college band. The staging was fairly simple and did not appear to hold a deeper meaning about the ideas of Vampire Weekend or their music. Though Koenig and his bandmates seemed grateful and happy to be on the stage, their presence was often shy and reserved, speaking to the audience relatively little prior to the encore segment.

Another hurdle was that the back half of the setlist became a tad repetitive in tone and presentation. Understandably, the show leaned heavily on the band’s most recent project, with nine of the ten songs on “Only God Was Above Us” being performed. However, it was a somewhat puzzling choice that the concert only featured two songs – “Diane Young” and “Hannah Hunt” – from 2013’s Grammy-winning “Modern Vampires of the City,” which remains one of the group’s most acclaimed and popular records. Perhaps some restructuring of the setlist to better space out the songs from the new album would have helped engage the audience more consistently.

Despite these criticisms, Vampire Weekend offered attendees a memorable performance that was a master class in how a band can excel by putting their humble artistry and raw musical talent front and center. The career-spanning two-hour show managed to keep the majority of the audience on their feet and moving to the music for most of the concert. Aside from one short break before the encore, the group hardly stopped to catch their breath as they ran through more than two dozen indie pop classics, displaying an admirable balance of showmanship, endurance and stamina.

Under a clear Hollywood sky, Vampire Weekend’s spirited concert made it possible for fans to ascend.

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Reid Sperisen | Music | fine arts editor
Sperisen is the 2024-2025 music | fine arts editor. He was previously an Arts contributor from 2023-2024. Sperisen is a third-year political science student minoring in professional writing from Stockton, California.
Sperisen is the 2024-2025 music | fine arts editor. He was previously an Arts contributor from 2023-2024. Sperisen is a third-year political science student minoring in professional writing from Stockton, California.
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