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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vampire Weekend @ The Riverside Theater

March 23, 2010

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It’s an oddly confrontational image, the vintage portrait of a Polo-clad, pretty young woman with an ambiguous, perhaps vacant stare and lavishly coiffed hair that adorns the cover of Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Contra. “It’s almost like a Rorschach test,” singer Ezra Koenig said of the image in a January interview with MTV, “because some people get very mad when they see a white blond girl in a Polo shirt.” Judging by how Contra’s songs both pine for and tear down women of means, Koenig’s own feelings about this symbolic nymph are conflicted. In verse, he fantasizes about her expensive stockings and the holiday escapes her trust fund could bankroll, but later he hypocritically admonishes her for her vanity and desire for “good schools and friends with pools.” The simple schoolboy crushes of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut seem especially innocent by comparison.

The band performed in front of a towering backdrop of their cover girl for their sold-out show Tuesday night at the Riverside Theater, her disapproving gaze fixed over the band, at the audience in the balcony. As the evening wore on, her image was subjected to increasingly unflattering light. By the encore, she was cast in a cautionary red, her light-bulb eyes glowing demonically, another way for the band to warn, “Beware the rich girl,” as if their songs hadn’t already made that clear enough.

Vampire Weekend has grown more jaded since their debut. On Contra, Koenig still dreams of sipping cold drinks in sun-soaked destinations, but this time around these locales are tattered by war and revolution, their beaches littered with discarded ammunition and haunted by the threat of balaclava-masked militants. He’s not in Cape Cod anymore.

All that might suggest an unduly heavy live show, but Vampire Weekend retained the playful spirit that drew fans to them in the first place. The group bound triumphantly on stage to the roar of DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” and they maintained that impressive energy throughout the entire show.

This was a tighter, more confident Vampire Weekend than Milwaukee caught two years ago when their breakout tour hit Turner Hall Ballroom. They beautifully worked the crowd, which danced hardest to wound-up favorites from the group’s debut, particularly “A-Punk” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” but also showed plenty of love for Contra. The two albums are decidedly of a piece, and though the band’s allowed a little extra weariness to seep into their new material, it’s done little to dampen their escapist appeal. Violent revolutionaries and callous girls be damned, a vacation’s a vacation.

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