Live Review: Vampire Weekend Reborn In Three-Set Webster Hall Marathon

Ross Stewart
– Vampire Weekend Reborn
Vampire Weekend’s expanded seven-piece lineup performs at Webster Hall on May 5, 2019.

Vampire Weekend
Webster Hall
New York, N.Y.
May 5, 2019

Vampire Weekend’s three-set marathon at New York’s Webster Hall on Sunday was a celebration of many things: Father of the Bride, the indie-rock band’s first album in six years; an expanded lineup with a reinvigorated sound; new creative partnerships with artists from Haim to Dev Hynes; and the enduring legacy of one of the most influential groups of the past decade.

But, above all else, it was a celebration that the boys were, in fact, back in town.

“Shout out to the boys, they’re somewhere up there,” frontman Ezra Koenig joked after the band wrapped an energetic cover of the Thin Lizzy classic during the show’s encore, gesturing to the venue’s balcony. “Welcome back to town.” The comment was an unsubtle reference to Vampire Weekend itself: Before Sunday, the quintessentially New York band hadn’t played a proper Big Apple gig in more than five years.

Ross Stewart
– Modern Jampires
Ezra Koenig and Chris Baio jam out during Vampire Weekend’s marathon Webster Hall show.

Six hours and three sets earlier, as fans munched on free eats from New York fixture Ess-A-Bagel, “The Boys Are Back In Town” blared over the PA as Vampire Weekend first took the stage. The high-octane song set an emotional tone, but not an aesthetic one, for the band’s eminently mellow first set, which was dominated by laidback covers of The Velvet Underground (“Sunday Morning”), Bruce Springsteen (“I’m Goin’ Down”), Fleetwood Mac (“Everywhere”), Paul Simon (“Late In The Evening”) and Bob Dylan (“Jokerman”).

Vampire Weekend’s alleged drift into dad-rock and jam band territory has dominated conversations about its Father of the Bride era and, on a superficial level, the band continues to court such comparisons: As the Webster Hall crowd trickled in, the PA played the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” and special merch for the Webster Hall gig paid tribute to the Dead’s live album One From the Vault.

But the music Sunday proved the references are more than savvy, tie-dyed marketing. While some songs in the hour-plus first set, like 2008’s “M79” and 2013’s “Step,” deviated minimally from their studio counterparts, Vampire Weekend’s expanded seven-piece lineup imbued others with new, sprawling life. “Obvious Bicycle,” the twee opener of 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, built into a rollicking roots-rock jam worthy of The Allman Brothers Band — complete with a solo by guitarist Brian Robert Jones drenched in Jerry Garcia-indebted wah effects — and included Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” as a buoyant interlude. Like the Dead, the Allmans and several other jam mainstays, Vampire Weekend now utilizes two drummers live (founding member Chris Tomson and percussionist Garrett Ray), and the format added welcome depth to “Giving Up The Gun” and “Diplomat’s Son,” both standouts from 2010’s Contra.

Ross Stewart
– New Faces
Brian Robert Jones (left) and Danielle Haim (center) proved welcome additions to Vampire Weekend’s live act.

While the links between Father of the Bride‘s studio recordings and the Grateful Dead have been exaggerated – outside of the flower-power licks on “Sunflower,” squelching guitar effects on “How Long?” and sunny pop-rock of “Harmony Hall,” it’s mostly just a Vampire Weekend record – the jammy signifiers were tough to miss when the band played the album in full for its second set on Sunday.

For one, the 58-minute album swelled to an hour and a half onstage, loaded with accomplished jamming led by Jones, who replaced founding member Rostam Batmanglij and has played a sizable role in upping the band’s noodle quotient live. (New touring members Greta Morgan and Will Canzoneri, meanwhile, add sonic depth and a sturdy foundation for experimentation.) The set’s best moment came when Jones acknowledged the “China Cat Sunflower” vibes of “Sunflower” and raised the track a “Morning Dew,” sending the track into the psychedelic stratosphere before returning to earth with Koenig for a thrashing, Sabbath-like coda.

Smartly, Vampire Weekend balanced all the improv with sublime readings of Father of the Bride‘s most intimate material, assisted on several songs by Danielle Haim, whose voice also looms large on the album. The unvarnished songwriting gleamed live, from tender “Married In A Gold Rush” to wistful closer “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” to come-what-may ditty “This Life,” which featured all three Haim sisters.

Jams lurked in the afternoon’s third set, highlighted by a heady version of Koenig’s 2014 SBTRKT collaboration “New Dorp. New York” that occupied a mystical realm somewhere between the Talking Heads’ post-punk grooves and the psych-prog of the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet.” But the set was mostly an extended tour through the band’s catalog, from hits (reliably scorching “A-Punk”) to fan favorites (“Hannah Hunt,” with beautiful slide guitar work from Jones) to deep cuts (“Jonathan Low,” from 2010’s “Twilight: Eclipse” soundtrack, received its live debut).

Ross Stewart
– Helping Haim
The Haim sisters join Vampire Weekend for new track ‘This Life.’

“Sister of Pearl,” off bassist Chris Baio’s underrated 2015 solo album, even received a poppy reading; thankfully, no songs off drummer Chris Tomson’s woeful side project Dams of the West made the cut.

In an impressive flex – or maybe just inexperience at sequencing a lengthy show that, Koenig repeatedly reminded the audience, was by far Vampire Weekend’s longest ever – the band played “Diane Young,” “Cousins,” “A-Punk,” “Campus” and “Oxford Comma” one after another, but chose not to end the show with that formidable, high-energy sequence. Instead, Vampire Weekend concluded with Thin Lizzy and two Modern Vampires songs, “Worship You” and “Ya Hey,” and narrowly skirted anticlimax thanks to a “Ya Hey” assist by fellow New York institution Dev Hynes, whose angelic vocals elevated the track.

“A lot’s happened on this skinny little island,” Koenig remarked during the mammoth show’s encore. Manhattan’s rich musical history includes Vampire Weekend’s mid-’00s Columbia University birth – and now, Sunday’s potent Webster Hall rebirth. The boys, back in town indeed.


Set 1
Sunday Morning (The Velvet Underground cover)
Obvious Bicycle
Everlasting Arms
I’m Goin’ Down (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Everywhere (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Late In The Evening (Paul Simon cover)
Giving Up the Gun
Diplomat’s Son
The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance
Jokerman (Bob Dylan cover)

Set 2
Hold You Now
Harmony Hall
This Life
Big Blue
How Long?
Unbearably White
Rich Man
Married In a Gold Rush
My Mistake
Flower Moon
We Belong Together
Spring Snow
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin

Set 3
Mansard Roof
Ladies of Cambridge
White Sky
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
New Dorp. New York
I Stand Corrected
Sister of Pearl
Hannah Hunt
Jonathan Low
One (Blake’s Got a New Face)
Diane Young
Oxford Comma
I Think Ur a Contra

The Boys Are Back in Town (Thin Lizzy cover)
Worship You
Ya Hey