Vampire Weekend Busts Out the Jams at Bill Graham

Ezra Koenig and company channel the Grateful Dead in a 29-song performance.

Back in 2006, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig was far more concerned with punctuation than crunchy riffs. His indie rock quartet garnered critical acclaim and immense popularity behind the strength of three albums that occasionally borrowed from the sounds of world music but never strayed too far from the concise, sweet, style of play they introduced with their eponymous debut.

Then came 2019’s Father of the Bride. It’s not easy to succinctly summarize this record — the band’s first in six years — given how many influences it draws from. A sprawling record that frequently features the vocal talents of Haim’s Danielle Haim, the band’s latest blends esoteric songcraft, lush melodic structures, and a heaping helping of extended jams. 

On Tuesday night at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a sold-out crowd gathered to welcome Vampire Weekend for the first show since a 2013 appearance at the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival. 

“I think that was the last time we were here,” Koenig mused between songs. “I remember it was really cold. We were all wearing sweaters.”

Upon finishing his assessment that the band had, in fact, not played a local show in six years, a nearby member of the audience playfully shouted, “That’s fucking ridiculous!”

Perhaps it is. The frequency with which an artist tours inevitably informs their public perception. For example, the evening’s opener, Soccer Mommy, was making, at a minimum, their third stop in San Francisco proper this year. Having already opened for Kacey Musgraves at the Masonic back in January, the project of Nashville singer-songwriter Sophie Allison returned to headline Great American Music Hall in April.

If there’s an over saturation point for Soccer Mommy, it has yet to be hit. Allison — and, she would assuredly want it noted, her phenomenal bandmates — more than held their own. This is impressive, given being a supporting act at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is sometimes a thankless task. The venue’s cavernous confines make it easy to lose focus on the artist, but Soccer Mommy appeared to have a sizeable and supportive following in the house as they ran through cuts from 2018’s Clean as well as the recently released song, “Lucy.”

When Vampire Weekend arrived, there was no need for protective outerwear this time around. From the first notes of opener “Sunflower” (indisputably one of the tracks on Father that most closely recalls the Grateful Dead), it was clear that Koenig and his bandmates would be plenty warm as they tacked-on an extended outro of cascading guitar lines. Many other songs throughout the evening were given the same treatment — a feat made all the more impressive in light of the fact that Vampire Weekend played a total of 29 songs on Tuesday night.

Make no mistake: unless your name is Paul McCartney, no one is expecting you to play roughly 30 songs. There’s no metric for establishing the baseline of how long a set should be — instrumental acts like Explosions in the Sky may only play a handful of songs, with each last nearly ten minutes, for example — but no one would’ve faulted Vampire Weekend for pivoting to their encore sooner. 

Instead, what transpired was one of the most generous performances San Francisco will likely enjoy for a great while. Bands on tour playing the city on a Tuesday night simply don’t feel obligated to deliver a set of that magnitude — nor should they. As mentioned earlier, no contract exists between fans and musicians to define what constitutes their “money’s worth.” We can safely categorize some incidents as unacceptable (Lil Wayne’s recent theatrics come to mind), but otherwise our satisfaction is almost entirely derived from a gut feeling.

In the case of Vampire Weekend, it’s obvious that Ezra Koenig is eager to be playing shows again. It’s also obvious that he’s become enamoured with the Grateful Dead and their ilk (as of now, his most recent Twitter post concerns Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who recently passed away). For some, this change in style may not be a welcome departure. For others, the long wait between 2013’s Vampires of the Modern City and Father meant an inevitable evolution for the band’s sound. 

What cannot be argued is how happy Koenig — alongside founding members Chris Baio (bass) and Chris Tomson (drummer) as well as a handful of new additions — appeared each time Vampire Weekend broke a song down to its bones and then brought it soaring back to life on the winds of ebullient psychedelia. It was a contagious condition, and one that appeared to inflict many in attendance at Bill Graham Civic.

Whatever form Vampire Weekend takes next, they must now be taken seriously as one of the more compelling live acts in modern rock today. Endurance is part of it, and so is their energy, but mostly it’s that joy. If it takes six years to ensure its presence the next time the band plays San Francisco, it will be worth the wait. 

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