Red Butte Garden opened its summer concert series earlier than I can ever remember with a sold-out Vampire Weekend show Tuesday night.
Clearly, they knew what they were doing.
On what proved a classic Salt Lake City spring evening–crisp and clear and the hills, at least briefly, a lush green, with a three-quarter moon hanging low–Vampire Weekend delivered an energetic burst of jittery pop-rock with a distinct dance flavor for 3,000 or so folks who never left their feet from the moment the quartet hit the stage.
Now with three albums under their collective belt–all three albums that have improved on their respective predecessors–Vampire Weekend was remarkably assured on stage, and their sound was pristine, their instruments mixing with samples and synthesizers to, at various points, evoke surf-rock, reggae, ska, world-beat and straight-up pop.
Once singer Ezra Koenig and Co. got things started with a near-perfect three-song burst of “Cousins,” “White Sky” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the proceedings were a relentless march of sunny jams, incisive sounds and clever wordplay. “I Stand Connected” was solid, and “Diane Young” from the band’s latest release, Modern Vampires of the City, was a bombastic delight, and as rocking as the band ever got during their 90-minutes-plus show.
The set veered seamlessly between songs from the new album and older favorites; Vampire Weekend now has enough familiar “hits” to sprinkle them generously among the new material. Among the new ones, the ballad “Step” offered the first respite from the nonstop dance party six songs into the night, while “Unbelievers” settled nicely between crowd favorites “Holiday” and “Horchata.”
If there’s a criticism of the band to be found, it’s not from their live performance, but rather how so many of their songs settle into the same tempo and vibe–it’s all good stuff, but at times it was a bit like a reggae show where the consistent rhythms from song to song can get a little dull.
Despite that, songs like the raucous “A-Punk” and lush “Don’t Lie”–played for only the second time ever, according to Koenig–still offered some legit aural thrills. And the arrival of older favorite “Oxford Comma” just before the band paused before a brief encore was received with some of the loudest cheers of the night.
All in all, a damn strong opener at Utah’s best summer music venue, with a bit of a Twilight Concert Series vibe thanks to the atypically young (for Red Butte shows, at least) and constantly moving crowd.
Yo La Tengo made a bold decision before they even started their current tour.
Wanting to find a way to showcase the expansive sonic palette displayed on their latest album, Fade, the New Jersey trio decided to eschew opening acts on the road in favor of delivering two sets each night–the first offered seated, and largely acoustic, and the second electrified and noisy.
While the set-up allows Yo La Tengo–Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew–to easily explore all aspects of their three-decade career, it also risks shocking some new fans with the difference between the two halves of the show. Monday at The State Room, anyone who only saw the woozy, narcotic first set, for example, would have no idea that the latter half showcased some arty noise-rock that veered between thrilling and perplexing.
Even so, the show was always entertaining, with the three members trading turns on vocals and the stacks of guitars, keyboards and drums on stage. At this point in their career, Yo La Tengo is seemingly capable of easily creating ballads that are painfully beautiful and pop-rock gems that in a more just world would fill the airwaves of radio stations from coast to coast.
That’s not going to happen, so we’ll have to be happy with seeing Yo La Tengo in concert every few years and listening to their music through our headphones.
Monday, they opened with a sprawling, delicate version of Fade‘s opener, “Ohm,” a song that appears to address the ambiguous morality of our world via lines like, “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top, sometimes the good guys lose.” Kaplan, McNew and Hubley traded lines and gently strummed through before proceeding into the quiet half of the show by leaning heavily on other songs from the new album, including “Two Trains,” “Cornelia and Jane” and the excellent “I’ll Be Around.” Other highlights of the show’s “acoustic” portion were McNew’s “Gentle Hour” and Hubley’s take on old fave “Tom Courtenay.”
After a short break, Yo La Tengo returned to a slightly reconfigured stage and proceeded to provide a deliriously and joyfully noisy excursion into their noisier tendencies. A beefed-up re-imagining of the set opener “Ohm” was a definite highlight, as were takes on “Stockholm Syndrome” and a couple of my personal favorites from the band’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One album: “Little Honda” and “Moby Octopad.” Before the show was over, they had covered an NRBQ tune (perhaps “Magnet;” I’m not positive) and closed with an excellent version of “What Can I Say,” a tune from their 1990 album, Fakebook.
1990 was also, as Kaplan noted, the first time Yo La Tengo toured through Salt Lake City, for a gig at the Speedway Cafe. I missed that show, but I’m older now–and that means I’m smart enough to never miss them again.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND, RED BUTTE GARDEN, Tuesday, May 21, 7 p.m., Sold Out
Despite the fact that Vampire Weekend’s 2010 sophomore album Contra debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album-sales charts, it still seemed like the band was perhaps a one-tricky pony, even though that trick was a good one–creating catchy, world beat-influenced pop-rock in excellent three-minute nuggets. On the band’s new release, Modern Vampires of the City, the quartet has taken a significant leap forward, lyrically and musically. While there is still the joyful, jagged edge that is familiar from the band’s first two albums, there’s something darker at work now, and it comes through in some foreboding new songs. It should be a real treat to hear the band explore their new-found diversity at the season opener of Red Butte Garden’s summer concert series. The High Highs open the show.
YO LA TENGO, THE STATE ROOM, Monday, May 20, 8 p.m., $25
Considering that dreamy indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo literally went about two decades between Utah gigs, fans in Zion have had it pretty good of late. Since taking that extended pause from our fair state between a late ’80s gig at the Speedway Cafe and a show at the U’s Union Ballroom a few years back, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew have played a Twilight Concert Series show and at least one Urban Lounge gig. Now they’re returning on a tour supporting the band’s excellent new album, Fade, that arrived over the winter. Featuring all the expansive beauty, rough-and-tumble guitar and sly pop hooks that we’ve come to expect from the long-running New Jersey crew, Fade is one of the band’s best efforts, despite it being the first time they worked with producer John McEntire of Tortoise at his Chicago studio. Whether delivering extended jams or concise gems, Yo La Tengo is hard to beat in a live setting, and the fact that they’re touring without opening acts this time around–instead doing two sets at every stop–is a true bonus. I saw the show Friday night in Seattle, and the first set was full of the mellow stuff, much of it acoustic, while the second featured Yo La Tengo at their electrified, unleashed best.
LIVING TRADITIONS FESTIVAL, SALT LAKE CITY & COUNTY BUILDING, Friday, May 17-Sunday, May 19, Free
Simply put, the annual Living Traditions Festival thrown by the Salt Lake Arts Council is one of my favorite civic events in Utah’s capitol city. Bringing together virtually all of the various ethnic communities that make up Salt Lake City, the festival is a celebration of the highest order. You can educate yourself on different folk arts from around the world, eat your way through a global feast and witness an array of live performances that match any of the dance performances or concerts we get to enjoy the rest of the year. And it’s all free! This year’s headliners include the Mariachi Divas on Friday, French-Canadian roots musicians De Temps Antan and Celtic folkie Maura O’Connell on Saturday, and what I consider the highlight of the whole weekend–the Relatives on Sunday night. The Relatives (pictured) are a gospel-funk group that originally formed in the ’70s, only to disband. Now they’re back, and include members of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears among their members. Their high-energy show Sunday afternoon should make for a perfect capper on a great weekend.
JUNIOR BROWN, THE STATE ROOM, Wednesday, May 15, 9 p.m., $23
While the “one of a kind” label is thrown around a bit too easily in the music world, Junior Brown certainly fits the bill. Let’s start with his own invention, the “guit-steel,” a double-necked guitar that allows Brown to quickly move between wicked steel-guitar licks and a more traditional six-string in a flash. Then there’s his deep growl of a voice that fits perfectly with his honky tonk-meets-rockabilly songs. Throw in his cowboy hat and a wife, Tanya Rae, who plays a mean rhythm guitar, and you have a man with a distinct look and sound who will NEVER be confused for just another country pretty boy. The Hollering Pines, a local group made up of a couple Folka Dots (Marie Bradshaw and Kiki Jane Buehner), a Trapper (Dan Buehner) and guitar man Dylan Schorer, will open the show.