For such an intricate band, Vampire Weekend know well the power of simple joys. During the encore, at the end of 26 songs played over nearly two hours, four giant planet Earth beach balls are unleashed on to the heads of the crowd at Alexandra Palace.
Various band members – first Chris Baio, the band’s bassist, later main man Ezra Koenig – rush to knock the globes back at the audience when they hit the stage. You don’t expect this kind of cheesy, dumb fun from an outfit who, just over a decade ago, peddled African-inflected post-punk tunes set in the niche milieu of higher education.
Four albums in, however, and Vampire Weekend have long combined a searching intelligence with vast singalongs, and a restless musicality with the most accessible of melodies. The scale of their success mandates, perhaps, a little corniness in these big venues. There is probably an unspoken entente between this band and the over-thinkers who form their fanbase that playing volleyball with plastic planet Earths is inherently absurd. (Also, they won’t biodegrade any time soon.)
A 3D spinning world is also centre stage tonight. Released in May, the band’s magnificent fourth album, Father of the Bride, is a record full of love songs that thrums with anxiety about the climate emergency and the rise of extremism. “How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea,” wonders How Long?, a piano-strewn highlight of the encore. “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” wonders the same song, about US politics. The planet is on the cover of the record, in a cartoon departure from the band’s signature atmospheric photography – just one of the step changes that mark this new iteration of Vampire Weekend.
And yet, for all the angst at the core of Father of the Bride, it is one of the band’s most mellifluous outings, – an easy listen, full of country duets and lush musicianship. The vibe is “serious” and “not that serious”, to half-quote Koenig in one of the album’s ad-libs.
Before the beach balls, this mighty seven-strong band play the hell out of it, and a great tranche of the band’s catalogue. Often, the tour-hardened outfit – circling the globe for the first time without founder member Rostam Batmanglij, who left in 2016 to pursue other projects – stick to the script, especially for sacrosanct first-album cuts such as A-Punk.
Just as often, they unmoor. On record, in the rush to consider Koenig’s oblique lyrics, it’s often tempting to take the band’s engrossing music for granted. Tonight, the band make full use of the martial firepower of two drummers – core member Chris Tomson and touring percussionist Garrett Ray, heavy on the gourds and bongos.
This exhibition hall’s sound is infamously muddy; tonight is no exception. But the distorting bass ultimately adds to the density of instrumentation on offer – a pile-on of keyboards of every vintage, and guitars of most stripes. On Sympathy, a flamenco-scented cut from Father of the Bride, there are three pell-mell acoustic guitars.
My Mistake has elegant jazz club piano, courtesy of keyboard player Will Canzoneri, who also adds louche honky-tonk touches on a tremendous Harmony Hall, a huge singalong tonight. The song’s lyrics seemingly allude to the rise of antisemitism in spaces previously believed to be safe, and to the shrillness of online echo chambers. Its guitar motif, meanwhile, radiates a calm beauty. Last January, a 120-minute loop appeared on YouTube, a trailer for the album doubling as excellent ambient music to work to.
The loss of Batmanglij and a move to the west coast paved the way for Koenig to throw open Vampire Weekend to fresh influences. Clad in a tie-dye T-shirt and board shorts, as though impervious to the drear of London in November, is live guitarist Brian Robert Jones. Emblematic of the band’s LA rebirth, and taking on the role of album guest Steve Lacy, Jones adds the lysergic guitar sunshine of the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix to this most east coast of bands. Vampire Weekend were, once, perhaps, the very definition of an uptight band – not any more. From the guitar solos to the beach balls, there is the feeling of hair being let down, of beds unmade, of warm layers cast aside.
As ever, Koenig doesn’t really say much, other than to note the passage of nine years since Vampire Weekend last played here, and to take requests at the end. (Diplomat’s Son, and a 2008 song called Ottoman, from a film soundtrack). The band’s music, it follows, does even more talking than usual – although some reports of Vampire Weekend turning into a “jam band” on this tour have been exaggerated.
On New Dorp, New York – a SBTRKT track to which Koenig lent vocals back in 2014 – the band achieve the first of several lift-offs. Jones’s guitar work turns gnarly, before the band pivot to dancefloor space-funk.
Even more beautiful is Sunflower, where Koenig and Jones’s guitars face off against one another, doubling up on the song’s intricate guitar figure. It eventually climaxes in a blues-rock choogle that lends this version the nickname “Stoneflower”.
More playful yet is 2021, the most pristine electronic track on Father of the Bride, rendered more resonantly tonight, with the added fun of Koenig singing into a talkbox. And who could predict that Jerusalem, New York, Berlin would end up as a full-on rave? It is, after all, a sombre song about the Balfour declaration, and cities significant to the Jewish diaspora. The take-home tonight from this sunnier Vampire Weekend seems to be that even over-thinkers need to cut loose and kick some inflatables about – that music can deliver succour.