Self-assured Vampire Weekend rocks Red Butte Garden

By Jamshid Ghazi Askar

Who: Vampire Weekend, with the High Highs
Venue: Red Butte Garden
Date: May 21

SALT LAKE CITY — One week after the release of their third studio album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” Vampire Weekend played an eclectic and lively show Wednesday at the Red Butte Garden’s outdoor amphitheater.

The Ivy League quartet opened their 18-song main set with “Cousins” and “White Sky,” two of the four singles from their sophomore album, “Contra.” Indeed, throughout the night Vampire Weekend’s set list drew most heavily from “Contra,” with tracks from their self-titled debut and “Modern Vampires of the City” intermittently peppered into the mix.

Frontman Ezra Koenig was consistently engaging in an understated way that’s fairly rare for lead singers: He didn’t resort to preening or screaming or hip-thrusting to “sell” his songs. Drummer Chris Tomson’s raw energy dominated the first half of the show; he attacked his drum kit with equal parts precision and imagination. The most musically fungible member of the band, bassist Chris Baio, was also the man who endeared himself most to thecrowd via a seemingly never-ending stream of smiles and winks.

Conversely, guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij proved to be something of an enigma for much of the night. Batmanglij appeared utterly disinterested as he sluggishly went through the motions on the left side of the stage. Batmanglij bottomed out during “Horchata,” when the crowd basically ignored his exhortations to sing along with part of the song’s chorus.

Late in the main set, however, Batmanglij suddenly sprang to life. Nimbly alternating between his organ, keyboard console, array of distortion effects pedals and sunburst Fender Telecaster, Batmanglij was the secret sauce that elevated an already solid concert into a very memorable finish that included the final songs of Vampire Weekend’s main set and a subsequent encore.

Bathed in strobe lights and smoke machines, all four band members played with zealous gusto for the three-song encore of “Diplomat’s Son,” “Giving Up the Gun” and “Walcott.”

Beneath the shiny packaging of an energetic live performance, Vampire Weekend’s set list told a very interesting story. All the songs were the band’s own — that is, they played no covers. And the non-linear evolution of Vampire Weekend through their first three albums was also veryapparent: they sounded like a Cape Cod party band when playing songs from the “Vampire Weekend” debut; a group with emerging global sensibilities and refined musical tastes during the “Contra” tracks; and, finally, a quartet with increasingly sophisticated lyrics and focused arrangements on new songs like “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey.”

The High Highs — a young three-piece outfit from Sydney, Australia — opened for Vampire Weekend. The trio boasted a mellow synth-influenced sound and artful drumming, but the High Highs will need toemploy catchier hooks before they encounter any modicum of mainstream success.

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