Things were looking dire early Wednesday morning for the Vampire Weekend concert at the BMO Harris Pavilion.
The weather was crummy, with gray skies and drizzling clouds hogging the sky. Fans looking forward to enjoying a nice, cozy night of music indoors at The Riverside couldn't be excited looking at a forecast of clouds and rain for their relocated concert. Meanwhile, Pabst public relations guy Andy Nelson's dream of an artists' lounge backstage at the pavilion – overlooking the lake, showing off some of the city's finest views of the lakefront and the skyline – was now smothered in drab gray and required more squeegeeing than surely hoped.
Luckily, mother nature heard the Milwaukee music community's prayers, delivering a cloudless, if admittedly brisk, night. Even if the weather remained soggy, however, it's hard to imagine many complaining – or even noticing – after indie/mainstream darlings Vampire Weekend hit the stage Wednesday night with a buoyant 90-minute set, packed to the brim with the band's signature smartly turbocharged beach-infused beats.
Making a triumphant entrance to a booming, trumpet-heavy rap tune, Vampire Weekend opened up with the bouncy '80s-tinged "Diane Young" off their latest album, 2013's acclaimed "Modern Vampires of the City." Lead singer Ezra Koenig and company continued to charge up the crowd, quickly moving right into "White Sky" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" off the band's earlier two albums. Both showed off Koenig's impressive howling, yoyo-ing vocal acrobatics while also warming up the packed, previously chilled pavilion audience with the band's nicely mixed Caribbean flair.
Shortly after "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," the stage's white draped background soon dropped away revealing a flower background pulled from your grandma's hippest couch. The dangling white pillars with a circular mirror in the middle, occasionally flashing some art or a late image of a chandelier, stuck around the whole show.
Though the background changed, Vampire Weekend and the band's effervescent barrage of hits both old and new stayed firmly on track, hopping into "Unbelievers" and "Holiday." Koenig and the rest of the band did very little conversing with the crowd; keyboardist/organist Rostam Batmanglij was the first to break the silence, introducing "Horchata" and a sing-along well into the show (not that the crowd needed an invite to sing along).
Still, they managed to remain connected, never impersonal, with the crowd. Koenig had a fun matter-of-fact performance style to some of the songs' hyper-clever, intelligent lyrics (namely on the old hits "Campus" and "Oxford Comma" later on in the evening) and is generally charismatic without seemingly much effort. Meanwhile, excitable bassist Chris Baio got the crowd going with some clapping (which made its first of many appearances during "Unbelievers"), booty shaking and Marty McFly-esque dance moves.
As a result, the songs-first focus seemed less out of disinterest and more out of giving their crowd the most songs – many of which are brief three minute maximum bursts of energy – for their money.
For every brief dip in the show, Vampire Weekend had a bounding, toe-tapping hit to fire the crowd back up. The combination of the mellower "Step" and playfully singsong "Finger Back" were quickly followed by the blissfully mixed speeds of "Horchata." Soon after, the beach-ready blazing guitar riffs of "Cousins" cut through the modest lull of "Everlasting Arms."
Many of the slower sections came from the acclaimed if less hit-heavy "Modern Vampires of the City." However, the balance of crowd-pleasing hits and new material was overall a success.
Many of Vampire Weekend's most beloved old hits, such as "A-Punk," "Campus," "Oxford Comma" and "Giving Up the Gun," found their way into the show's final stretch – with "California English" and "Ya Hey" pleasantly mixed in as well. Throughout, the preppy darlings didn't do much showy with presentation, but the few light cues – a long shadowy silhouette of Koenig against the starry circular mirror on "Ya Hey," a sporadic light show for "Giving Up the Gun" – provided some extra spark to an already vigorously entertaining show.
The closer, "Obvious Bicycle," ended the show on an oddly mellow downbeat, but it was still a gorgeous song featuring beautiful unfurling, cascading vocals and harmonies. And, of course, there was an encore to brighten things back up. Perhaps not "Hannah Hunt" but "Walcott," which was an excellent farewell in terms of energy and theme ("Don't you wanna get out of Cape Cod/Out of Cape Cod tonight?").
If it's taken me a while to mention the opening act, NYC-based Cults, that's because there's little to say about them. They were a modestly energetic appetizer and did their job as openers, getting people in their seats if not exactly moving in them. Their hit, "Go Outside" (notable for a music video starring Dave Franco and Emma Roberts), got a bit of a reaction coming second to last in their brief set.
But mostly, this was Vampire Weekend's show, and in the BMO Harris Pavilion (a venue much deserving of more use, and based on the recent Lorde announcement, it appears Wednesday night's show was likely a harbinger of more to come), it was quite the burst of bright, beach-happy music. The concert was a good start to the summer concert/festival season, a good start for more Pabst/Summerfest/BMO Harris Pavilion collaborations and just a good show period. And on a brisk early summer night, I can think of few better ways to keep warm.
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