Home Reviews Movie Vampire Weekend Stays on Light Side With Austin Eclipse Show: Review

Vampire Weekend Stays on Light Side With Austin Eclipse Show: Review

Vampire Weekend Stays on Light Side With Austin Eclipse Show: Review

Vampire Weekend’s matinee concert Monday in Austin was the ultimate ADHD-friendly show. Did you want to watch the band, in its first show back after a year-and-a-half break from touring, and a much longer absence in the States? That was an event unto itself, and a good enough reason for an easy sellout of the 5,000-capacity Moody Amphitheater. Or did you want to spend much of the set looking in the opposite direction and gazing skyward? This would normally be breach of concert etiquette, or a reason to break out the Narcan nasal spray. But with an eclipse gradually taking place in the southeastern sky, and signature Vampire Weekend sunglasses provided on the way in, there had never been a better time to turn your back on Ezra Koenig.

Certainly Vampire Weekend’s new album, “Only God Was Above Us,” doesn’t provide a good reason for any current backlashes. Right about the time in a career that any band worth its salt should be facing accusations of being washed up, Vampire Weekend isn’t getting older, it’s getting better, and “Only God…” is one of the group’s best. So for those of us torn between watching the sun get blotted out and getting blotto keeping our attention on a particularly good rock show, this exercise in multi-tasking was a real contest of self-will.

For all the hoopla over this being an eclipse show, most of the audience was content to just keep their unshielded eyes on Koenig and company, content to wait until it actually got dark to pay too much attention to the cosmos’ shenanigans. These were mostly Vampire Weekend chasers, with eclipse-chasing taking a back seat. As totality approached, though, Koenig announced that the band would be taking a short intermission to let everyone focus on the impending darkness. I’d assumed maybe the band would actually pick its spaciest song and jam all the way through the 3-4 minutes of Texas totality. Or break out “Gen-X Cops,” the new song that begins with the line: “Blacken the sky and sharpen the axe!” Or cover Pink Floyd or Bonnie Tyler. (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” was at least used as the band’s walk-up music.)

But no. They would let the eclipse have its own set, since, Koenig said, it was “the main event, obviously … nature.” What kind of rock star move is that, willingly playing second fiddle to a solar apocalypse?

Actually, Vampire Weekend wasn’t in danger of being overshadowed, as it were. Inside the Moody Amphitheatre in downtown Austin, totality was a little underwhelming, as the cloud cover grew thicker by the minute, until the shrinking sun became completely obscured about 10 minutes before the darkness really kicked in. Except for one blink-and-you-missed-it  reapparance, in which a short roar went up as the flaming corona became visible for all of two seconds. “Did you catch that one moment?” Koenig asked, after the band returned to the stage. “Talk about a buzzer-beater!”

This is supposed to be a music review, not an eclipse review, but we feel comfortable going on record as giving this particular experience of the phenomenon a Pitchfork rating of 5.2.

We can go considerably higher for the band’s performance itself, and recommend seeing it in a more standard setting on the road this summer and fall, when their shows presumably won’t be accompanied by blatant signs of God’s judgment on America. (Unless all the merch selling out prematurely counts also as a sign of divine distress. This was the first time I’d ever seen a merch table being dismantled completely around the time the music was getting underway, thanks to all of the band’s bespoke shirts and hats having been manufactured in amounts guaranteed not to meet demand.)

It wasn’t quite Springsteen-ian in its epic qualities, but the band’s Austin show did stretch to two hours and 20 minutes (counting that 10-minute break for everyone to ponder twilight). Its highlights included six songs being debuted from “Only God Was Above Us,” which was even a couple less than the set could have withstood, but not a bad ratio of terrific new songs nonetheless. These included two newbies right at the top of the show, “Ice Cream Piano” and “Classical,” and then, over the course of nature playing with its faulty light switch, “Connect,” “Gen-X Cops,” “Capricorn” and “Hope,” all good candidates to stay in the set even by the time Vampire Weekend has moved on to album six.

The sound of Vampire Weekend on record is pretty different from the live experience, now, just as it was with the last album, 2019’s “Father of the Bride,” with Koenig and co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid treating the music almost as a sonically unpredictable duo project in the studio. (Bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson at least show up on about half the tracks, more than they did on “Father.”) Sometimes, when the new material is being played live, there’s more of a rush to the music, with a full seven-piece band taking it on; other times, you miss the eclectic touches from the records that can’t or shouldn’t be exactly recreated live.

“Capricorn” was one of those new numbers that felt more dynamic in the flesh; it’s on the band’s mellower, even more countrified side, but the guitar squalls that are kind of buried in the mix in the studio version made it feel rougher and noisier live. But “Connect” — introduced by Koenig as a real “keyboard workout,” like the pianist in tow had his work cut out for him — is one of the year’s most exciting tracks in any incarnation, an exercise in melodious hyperspeed that can’t help but put a smile on faces with its inventiveness and, yes, audaciousness of tempo.

Some of the group’s seminal tracks felt quaint now in the context of the more expansive newer stuff, like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” from a period when being audacious meant playing in a style meant to feel like it was taking place under African skies. But some of the chestnuts really blossomed to life with this version of the band. “Sunflower,” in particular, was a gas, alternating quick sax and fiddle riffs, then combining those two instruments in riffage alongside the guitar, like the art-rock equivalent of a Southern rock band doing a three-guitar attack.

The rarity most delighting some hardcore fans was “Jonathan Low,” “one of our least-known songs,” probably brought out for this occasion specifically because of its origin point: it was written and recorded for the “Twilight: Eclipse” movie. “We should play that one more often,” Koenig conceded, sounding surprised after sticking the landing. “That’s a good song… Shout-out to Robert Pattinson and the whole gang,” he joked. (Earlier he made it clear they never saw the film.)

The first-half highlight was “Flower Moon,” also clearly given a special place in the spotlight because of its appropriate title, written into the setlist to be the song that would precede the moony intermission no matter what time the show got underway. It was funky and fusion-y, with solos for bass, sax and what sounded like a vintage Synclavier. If they had just kept that eight-minute jam going all the way into and through the peak darkness, it would have been a real moment. It still was, even with the sun still out.

In the second half, guests included Thomas Mars of Phoenix, joining Koenig for a first-time performance of their prior studio collaboration “Tonight,” and Dave 1 from Chromeo then guesting for “Needy Girl” — followed by those two French speakers leading the audience in a French version of “Happy Birthday to You,” in honor of this coincidentally being Koenig’s 40th birthday.

Vampire Weekend’s singer Ezra Koenig performs during a concert at the Moody Amphitheater while a total solar eclipse progresses across North America, in Austin, Texas, on April 8, 2024. This year’s path of totality is 115 miles (185 kilometers) wide and home to nearly 32 million Americans, with an additional 150 million living less than 200 miles from the strip. The next total solar eclipse that can be seen from a large part of North America won’t come around until 2044. (Photo by Suzanne CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images

Much later in the show, the penultimate number but true climax was a medley Koenig said they’d never attempted before, dubbed “Cocaine Cowboys” in whole, and consisting in part over the course of 10 minutes of their own “Married in a Gold Rush,” the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California,” Gram Parsons’ “Sin City” and a Grateful Dead-derived folk traditional. It bordered on excess, but being this being Koenig’s birthday and the rapture possibly about to occur, this must’ve seemed as good a day to go overboard as any.

The band didn’t bring in any special production design to enhance the experience, beyond a backdrop portraying an eclipse in all its phases, from beginning to end. But the two drummers did arrive equipped with complementary bass drum heads, each depicting Méliès-like faces of the sun and the moon. “See our custom drumheads?” Koenig asked. “I think (the artist) got the expressions just right. The sun looks pissed, but he’s about to laugh.”

The audience might have known how the sun felt… maybe a little pissy about missing out on all that bespoke merch, but all is forgiven when performances as awe-inspiring as “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon” are involved. Being in the path of totality, and in the path of total virtuosity: they’re both rare enough things.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – APRIL 08: People view the solar eclipse during Vampire Weekend’s Total Solar Eclipse Show at Moody Amphitheater at Waterloo Park on April 08, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Hubert Vestil/Getty Images)
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