Gilded age: Review of Vampire Weekend at The Orange Peel

(Watch for a photo gallery by Halima Flynt to be posted soon!)

There’s something funny about a band so light, so poppy, so synth-y and squeaky-clean referencing Vampires — you know, the dark, blood-thirsty immortals of the underworld — in its name. Adding to that dichotomy, Vampire Weekend‘s Tuesday, April 7 show at The Orange Peel let out well before the witching hour and the fan base was nearly as freshly-scrubbed as the quartet on stage. But even though Vampire Weekend looks more crew-ready than crypt-ready, they do have a certain prowess with word pairings. “Vampire Weekend”— the name, according to Wikipedia, “derived from lead singer Ezra Koenig’s amateur film of the same name” — makes sense in the context of the band that penned “In December drinking horchata, I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.”

That song, a single from this year’s Contra and a favorite with top-40 DJs, didn’t make it onto the set list until the band’s three-song encore and even then — despite (or, probably, because of) excessive radio play — the enthusiastic crowd sang along in booming unison.

Actually, keyboardist/guitarist Rostam Batmanglij introduced the song as a sing-along, leading the audience through a Cranberries-esque chorus of “Whoaaaaa ooooh;” but since everyone knew all the words (including tongue-twisting mentions of aranciata, masada and “Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals”) it was pretty-much a free-for-all.

The “sing along with the Whoaaaaa ooooh chorus” thing works well for Vampire Weekend: The band’s lyrics tend to be complex (in fact, they’ve been criticized for being elitist: “With references to Dharamsala, passports, Chap Stick, butlers, neckties, the United Nations, diction, English dramas, and, finally, inexplicably, Lil Jon, ‘Oxford Comma’ is perhaps the most confusing keyboard-driven pop gem that is ostensibly about oft-misused punctuation,” Prefix wrote about the band’s 2008 self-titled debut) but the “Whoaaaaa oooohs are prevalent, sprinkled liberally throughout choruses, allowing a break from the heady twists of prose, if not from the heady twists of beats.

Drummer Chris Tomson, wearing a fantastically retro stars and stripes tank top, was the powerhouse of the group. Yes, it was Koenig’s impressively elastic tenor that swept the crowd along in wave after wave of melody — often the lyrics provided the only real melody with keys and guitars offering simple, new wave-inspired counter melodies and dance-y phrases — but Tomson’s muscular drumming was brisk, complex and forceful for the entire 75 minute set. He played with a consistecy to rival a drum machine, his rhythms always driving the band in its pursuit of frenzied pop.

Even on slower, bubblier songs like the beachy, reggae-infused “Diplomat’s Son,” it was Tomson’s snappy beats that anchored the falsetto background vocals and the percolating keys parts. Bassist Chris Baio also played an important role in solidifying each song. While there was nothing funky about Baio’s playing, his heavy-hitting riffs offered welcome ballast and his clear chemistry with Tomson — so crucial to a rhythm section — allowed for the head-spinning turn-on-dime tempo and tonal changes that make up “Diplomat’s Son.”

What Vampire Weekend does is create seamless pop that, thanks to thoughtful (if at times slightly pretentious) lyrics stops just short of being confectionary. The crowd at Orange Peel was obviously aware of the band’s leanings and was ready to pogo and fist-pump through the entire set. Though Asheville is often considered a hub of roots and acoustic music, Vampire Weekend’s sell-out show proved that Asheville also embraces pop.

But just because it’s upbeat, happy and danceable, Vampire Weekend’s sound (worth noting: Though the band has some well-edited cover tunes in its repertoire, the Orange Peel show was strictly original material) isn’t without technical merit. The güiro-fueled double-time ska of “Cousins” recalled the hyper post-punk of They Might Be Giants; The grandly expansive “M79,” about a riding a bus, featured multi-layered sounds that give way to a harpsichord tone played on the keys. The result? A Belle Epoque dance hall time-traveled into the 21st century. Gilded, yes, but also the place where everyone wants to be.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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