During their nearly 90-minute set Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, New York-based indie Afro-popsters Vampire Weekend came off like the missing link between 1980s two-hit wonder Haircut 100 and legendary punks the Clash.
Like Haircut 100, Vampire Weekend are a cute bunch of preppy kids who churn out incessantly hummable, energetic tunes. Like Joe Strummer and company, the band plunders world-beat sounds that are likely unfamiliar to their core fan base, save for those who’ve heard their parents’ Paul Simon records.
But one can’t knock Vampire Weekend for their musical thievery because the quartet does it so well, and they’re open about their influences. They’ve even paid back the debt by collaborating with and enlisting the Very Best — fronted by Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya — as an opening act.
On Sunday, Vampire Weekend took the stage following a brief set by electro-toasting duo the Very Best and Baltimore’s Beach House, whose surreal psychedelic drone-pop made VW sound like Justin Bieber by comparison.
Not that Vampire Weekend is as lightweight as the Bieb, but it’s hard not to watch the band and wish there was more weighty subject matter on top of their chicken-scratch guitar riffs and skittering Afro-beats. Boyish good-looking frontman Ezra Koenig slid easily from his smooth Paul Simon-like croon into a falsetto in songs like “White Sky,” and the band played with bash-‘n’-pop exuberance on “Cousins.” But throughout the majority of the set, one had to wonder whether there was anything more to Vampire Weekend’s songs than a soundtrack for dancing on a warm September night.
Halfway through the set, Vampire Weekend finally made a statement with “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” a scathing indictment of plastic surgery that would make a perfect soundtrack selection for a big-screen adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Before the tune, Koenig instructed the crowd it was a call-and-response song in which the “appropriate emotion is ecstatic anger.”
A keyboard-heavy cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down” also showed promise, as did a stretched-out take of “Diplomat’s Son,” highlighting its reggae rhythms, and the dreamy “I Think Ur a Contra,” with bassist Chris Biao on an upright piano and Koenig using revolutionary lingo as a metaphor for personal politics. That sort of potential makes one hopeful Vampire Weekend will develop from a pleasant diversion into a band that truly matters.