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Live review: Vampire Weekend at the Music Box @ Fonda

January 13, 2010 |  2:55 pm


Imagine Simba as a golden cub in “The Lion King” wearing a popped collar and chewing a big wad of bubblegum and you have some approximation of the charms and trifles of Vampire Weekend, the New York band providing consummate college rock.

At the sold-out record-release show at the Music Box @ Fonda on Tuesday, the joyful crowd bopped to the tightly wound “Contra,” the Columbia University act’s follow-up to their successful but divisive debut. In front of a huge blow-up of the album’s cover portrait that could've been shot by Cobra Snake (Cape Cod edition), Vampire Weekend, all in button-down shirts, played with near-militaristic focus and energy.

Frontman Ezra Koenig is forever swooning over “Graceland”-era Paul Simon, but with a few twists. Whereas Simon framed his lyrics with top-notch but loose instrumentation, Koenig lets his words -- sometimes attitudinal, sometimes observational -- walk alongside the music that hones its strength from precision, rather than sprawl.

“White Sky” was part firing shot, part opening number. The point was clear: You’re here to have fun. The crowd engaged thusly; one guy in a red jacket jogged assiduously in place for nearly every tune. Drummer Chris Tomson wouldn’t have had it any other way. His kit might as well have been a nail gun shooting the beats into the melodic floor.

While the band borrows its sunny sway from Afropop, the rest is a hodgepodge informed by minimal hip-hop, dancehall, electronica and pure pop radio, from “Louie Louie” to the Fine Young Cannibals. Occasionally, the formula fails. “California English,” Vampire Weekend’s Auto-Tune stunt, is an already dated contrivance. Even more awkward in a live setting, it played like Beenie Man if he’d grown up in an Upper East Side co-op instead of Kingston.

But all was forgiven when Vampire Weekend commanded the crowd to dance for “A-Punk.” A diamond-hard amalgamation of ska spirit and poignant keys that should one day soundtrack a Noah Baumbach-penned epiphany scene, the song's momentum unleashed something in the audience that faintly resembled a mosh pit.

“Cousins” likewise spun the polite masses into a modified manic state, as they responded to the song’s pressurized, prankster joie de vivre. The mood flagged a bit for the atypically gentle “Taxi Cab,” but there were so many moments of attentive exchange between band and fans that maybe it provided a necessary breather.

Vampire Weekend might be the iPod go-to music for the average suburban kid, but their staccato rhythms and controlled spaces bring to mind a sprint through Manhattan. There’s no denying Vampire Weekend’s precocious prime, but when they sang “don’t you want to get out of Cape Cod tonight?” in "Walcott," their closing number, you couldn't help but be excited for where they might run to next.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: Koenig, front, and Tomson zero in on the mood. Credit: Margaret Wappler