When Vampire Weekend first played Red Rocks shortly after the release of their self-titled, debut album, the band was humbled, misty eyed even, in front of the hulking mountain venue. And in terms of attitude, Vampire Weekend didn’t seem much different on Monday in front of a sold out amphitheater — it’s not becoming of the scholarly Columbia boys to show a big ego.
Light on theatrics, the performance took place in front of a modest set design. Four Greek pillars sprouted from the stage — a nod to the band’s collegiate roots. Below the same large circular mirror from headlining Coachella last month stood Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig. The star of the band’s newest album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” Koenig was comfortable — far more so than in 2008 — with the crowd. He chatted a bit as if it were over coffee while flipping out occasional analytical quips about the night’s international bill. High Highs from Australia, Of Monsters And Men from Iceland also played on Monday. Koenig commanded the crowd with a light touch on a chopped up and broken down version of “Horchata” and a playful chorus of “One (Blake’s Got A New Face).”
But even though Vampire Weekend didn’t show any cockiness while on a tour that headlines every major festival this year, the growth of the band was subtle, yet key to the performance. The guys know how to build a set list — especially one that supports an album only a week old. The show kicked off with the lightning surf guitar of “Cousins,” the oohing falsetto chorus of “White Sky” and frilly beach-pop of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” These three older tracks served as a familiar warm up for the crowd. From there it was a nice peppering of newer tracks in key positions alongside the time-tested hits to keep the fans happy. The smartest placed song, the new track “Obvious Bicycle,” came as the first of the encore. Koenig said the band hadn’t been playing it much, but they had to play it here at Red Rocks, and it was obvious why. With the spacious, soaring harmonies bouncing around the rock formations, “Obvious Bicycle” was a magical moment, one that will supplant the song in the minds of fans who haven’t given it much of a listen yet.
This balance of old and new speaks to Vampire Weekend’s growing catalog — one that feels deeper than only three albums. At one point Koenig dug out the old track “Ladies of Cambridge,” an early single from Vampire Weekend’s days of playing the Hi-Dive. A bit rough around the edges, paying homage to those close quarters bars that clashed with Vampire Weekend’s clean cut pop, the tune seemed like a waypoint for the growth in the last six years. And this was all the more apparent beneath the understanding reflection of the Coachella mirror and the thoughtful, mature new material.
Koenig stuck to one spot through the majority of the set, weighed down by the demanding vocals. Reaching, dipping and shouting and cooing he pirouetted through the songs with only a few tumbles here and there. For the most part he made it work, though, when he did miss it was all the more noticeable given how perfect his voice is recorded. Despite the ease of which the band acted on stage, there was little showboating from Koenig, guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij or bassist Chris Baio. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Tomson kept things on point with his fun and thoughtful indie-pop beats.
The problem was that amid all this confidence and know-how, the small things that should have been second-nature would pop out of place. Much of this was due to the newness of the material that forgivably hasn’t had the luxury of being perfected live. On “Ya Hey” there were some obvious kinks in the synths, which would bounce between being slightly off and too overwhelming. Then there was “Unbelievers” and a few other new songs that suffered from some flat backing vocals. All problems that will likely be solved in time for headlining Glastonbury in June or Lollapalooza in August. But all was forgiven with the powerful, set-ending “Walcott,” which Koenig said is Vampire Weekend’s traditional goodbye song.
Of Monsters and Men, who were mates on the bill with Vampire Weekend for Monday night only, did their best to pump life into mostly formulaic folk-pop. The band is pleasant enough, though most of the time can dip into realms that are far too cutesy, such as on “Love Love Love.” Most of the band’s set dropped into monotony, somehow a cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Skeletons” even managed to feel formulaic. Rightfully so, the band got its biggest rise from the hit “Little Talks,” — a cheer positive enough to warrant playing the song twice.
Lisa Higginbotham is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. See more of her work here.