Review: Vampire Weekend graduates to the Hollywood Bowl

Review: Vampire Weekend graduates to the Hollywood Bowl
Vampire Weekend, led by frontman Ezra Koenig, performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 28, 2013. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Can we talk first about Ezra Koenig's outfit?

On Saturday night, the Vampire Weekend frontman strode onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl wearing a black jumpsuit with the pant legs rolled up to clam-digging level, his feet encased in chunky white Dad sneakers.


It wasn't the look you'd expect from the leader of one of indie rock's most celebrated bands, nor from a guy who's become a kind of chattering-class sex symbol.

Yet Koenig fits both of those descriptions like -- well, like something more tailored than a baggy jumpsuit.

In May, he and the rest of Vampire Weekend -- bassist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij -- scored their second No. 1 album with "Modern Vampires of the City," a beautiful and enigmatic record that demonstrates remarkable growth from the group's early songs about college and East Coast society.

And Saturday, when Koenig tossed his perfect hair during “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” more than a few young women in the capacity crowd squealed like they were staring at Harry Styles of One Direction.

"Everybody have a good summer?" the singer asked, summoning the enveloping charm of a campus dreamboat at the start of senior year.

His easeful manner made you think that Koenig was feeling good about Vampire Weekend’s graduation after not very many years to mega-venues such as the Bowl and Brooklyn’s cavernous Barclays Center, where the group played a hometown gig earlier this month.

But then what of those ungainly clothes?

Perhaps they were Koenig's defense against slipping too readily into the pop-star experience, a self-checking device intended to put some distance between his band and, say, Styles'.

The outfit wasn't his only such bulwark.

Though they carry melodies as luscious as those of Paul Simon, the complicated songs on "Modern Vampires" resist easy parsing as they consider questions of faith and mortality -- and how one's ideas about them shift as one grows up.

At the Bowl, Koenig preserved their mysteries, steering his way coolly through "Unbelievers" and "Step" -- in which he sang, "Wisdom's a gift but you'd trade it for youth / Age is an honor, it's still not the truth" -- with a knowing half-smile that hardly opened up a world of understanding.

He was even more inscrutable in "A-Punk," an uptempo hit from the band's 2008 debut, which he sang here with his left hand tucked casually in a pocket -- a gesture of nonchalance at strategic odds with the music's urgent gallop.


Yet if Koenig was unsure about clarifying his ideas for a mass audience -- an apparent reluctance, by the way, that didn't discourage several fans from running toward the stage for a closer glimpse -- his bandmates seemed more willing, particularly Tomson, who powered the group's set with muscular precision.

In "Giving Up the Gun," from 2010's "Contra," the drummer did an almost-comical fill that recalled Phil Collins' in "In the Air Tonight." And throughout the concert, Batmanglij added texture on guitar and a number of keyboards, juicing "Diane Young" with synthesized horn blasts and sending the delicate slide-guitar licks of "Hannah Hunt" floating up toward the Bowl's back rows.

Following "Hannah Hunt," which began the band's encore, Koenig thanked the crowd for coming and said it was "that time of the night" -- the show-closing moment for "Walcott," one of Vampire Weekend's first signature songs.

Anxious but jubilant, it's an upper-crust cri de coeur in which the singer yelps, "Don't you wanna get out of Cape Cod tonight?" And as several thousand fans freaked out to the song's thumping beat, it was possible for a second to see Koenig's jumpsuit another way -- not as a sign of his artistic temperament but as the uniform of a guy simply showing up for work.


Twitter: @mikaelwood