Why, at times, does the heart open like a lotus flower at the subtle behest of a group of players striking metal strings amplified through magnetic pickups and electrified speakers, hitting skins with wooden sticks, tinkling ivories and intoning melodies through public address systems?
Why does a melody and a group of chords combine to elevate the spirit?
Why does one band hit you firmly in the heart, while another one leaves you flat and listless?
What makes a gig magic?
I fear that, if the answers to these questions ever present themselves to me, it will be the prelude to my signing off. But man, the ceaseless quest for those answers strikes me as a worthwhile way to spend my time.
I found myself contemplating these questions at the Vampire Weekend show at Asbury Hall at Babeville on Tuesday. I didn’t really go in expecting that this would be the case. By the time I left, however, I knew I’d witnessed something unforgettable. This was a truly transcendent experience, a rare example of the magic that is summoned when the music, the crowd and the venue morph into one vibrant whole.
This was always going to be a special show, by design. Vampire Weekend is dropping “Father of the Bride,” its first new album since 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” on May 3. Last month, the band announced it would play three warm-up shows for its summer tour. That Buffalo would be gifted one of these seemed like a pipe dream prior to the announcement that Asbury Hall would be the first date on the mini-tour.
Unsurprisingly, tickets for the gig went in minutes, leaving thousands of Vampire Weekend fans out in the cold. The 1,200 or so able to secure a ducat felt lucky prior to showtime, but surely left feeling something closer to blessed.
The stakes were high for the band, too. Co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and not-so-secret weapon Rostam Batmanglij urged a collective groan from fans when he announced his departure in 2016. Even the hardcore VW fan had to wonder if leader Era Koenig would be able to bounce back from the loss of such a significant sparring partner.
Tuesday’s show – the band’s first in Buffalo since a 2014 stop at the Outer Harbor, and indeed, it’s first in all of New York State since that date as well – kicked all such concerns to the curb. If anything, the addition of guitarist/harmony vocalist Brian Robert Jones to the lineup has given Vampire Weekend wings to soar above and beyond past achievements.
With Jones on board, Vampire Weekend has become perhaps the most powerful guitar band in all of contemporary indie-rock. Throughout the Asbury Hall show, Koenig and Jones offered striking intertwined afro-pop flavored guitar figures in two-part harmony, their shimmering, clean guitar tones combining to form a sound echoing pivotal Talking Heads work, with occasional nods to Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
I was stunned, frankly, and became even more so when the new track “Sunflower” evolved from primal prog-rock elements into a full-on jam with psychedelic overtones and a killer Jones guitar solo, as the crowd roared its approval. Similarly, the inclusion of a take on “New Dorp. New York,” Koenig’s collaboration with techno artist SBTRKT, moved from EDM-flavored funkiness into an epic guitar throwdown, Jones once again playing with jaw-dropping intensity.
One might have reasonably expected the show to be merely a run-through of songs from the new album, an opportunity to rehearse new material for the coming tour in a “backwater” market like Buffalo. Instead, we were granted a fully formed Vampire Weekend concert, replete with a set drawing from all aspects of the band’s catalog, and topped by an incredibly generous six-song encore.
I walked into Asbury Hall an admittedly skeptical half-fan of Vampire Weekend. I left a full-fledged convert to the cause. What an incredible night, and what a gift for the Buffalo music community. Thanks for treating us like a primary concert market, guys.
April 30 at Asbury Hall at Babeville