Live Music + Gig Reviews

Vampire Weekend @ ULU, London

21 February 2008

It’s a Thursday evening in a packed students’ union and there are automated announcements urging us to evacuate.

For a moment we’re in Alien and Mother is going to detonate the Nostromo in T-minus five minutes. We’re Ripley, and we’ve got to find a ginger cat in a box, get to the shuttle and avoid a flesh-eating xenomorph before we’re exploded into trillions of atoms and scattered across the cosmos.

If there’s a fire alarm, there must be a fire. Where is it? Who started it? Was it that Damon Albarn, muttered some, noting that the Gorillaz lynchpin had been seen in the building. Or maybe it was Paul Simon, incensed at witnessing his music being ripped off, sniggered others. No, said others still – Vampire Weekend were so damned hot that the venue overheated.

The latter seemed the most likely explanation, for up until that moment the buttoned-down preppies had caused grins to break out across the room with their memorable pop sensibility twisted with African arrangements. Tidy hairstyles, sensible shoes and a heady brew of songs distilling the voice of Sting, the Afro connections of David Byrne and, yes, Paul Simon and some stonkingly tight musical arrangements combine to give Vampire Weekend a character that their ridiculous name could never quite achieve.

From opener Mansard Roof through Arcade Fire-a-like I Stand Corrected and Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, with its Peter Gabriel namecheck, Vampire Weekend had sounded well oiled, delighted to be playing and in the mood to win over plenty of new fans. Cape Cod, we are told by Koenig, was “founded by people from here”.

One (Blake’s Got A New Face) underlined Koenig’s impenetrable, even obscurantist lyrical style, fusing together words into sentences that, strung together, rarely make any sense. But it’s all but impossible to avoid bouncing along happily to the beat nonetheless. Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and the two Chrises of the rhythm section – Tomson and Baio – are every bit as important in creating the feelgood vibe with often startlingly intricate rhythms and phrases.

And then came the fire alarm. Ordered off the stage during The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance, front man Ezra Koenig and his band look dejected. But after a short time spent standing in huddles outside the venue next to a fire engine, the audience is allowed to troop back in, and the band return triumphant and unburnt to their stage and do their best to defy the venue’s curfew. The audience is smaller, but a sizeable number waited it out. ULU felt like a more intimate place this time round.

The band warm up again and pick up where they left off with The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance, throw in a new as yet un-named song and a cover of Tom Petty‘s American Girl by means of a thank you to “our ULU nation”. ULU. “Can I call you ULU?” asks Koenig, like a puppy asking for a biscuit. They’re so charmingly polite, they probably don’t make a mess and your mother would adore them.

What they lack in rock’n’roll posturing they more than make up for with the songs from their eponymous debut. Eschewing an indier-than-thou ethic in favour of hooks, melody lines and elaborate if opaque lyrics, Vampire Weekend’s music places them firmly in the pop orbit despite their unusual influences, but it’s those influences as much as their delight in channeling them that make the band such a delight.

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