Arts concert review

Rostam hasn’t lost‘em

Ex-Vampire Weekend member has still got his chops

Opening act: Joy Again
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Feb. 3, 2018

I knew it.

I’d guessed months ago, of course, but now I know for sure: he smiles while singing.

The “he” in question is all-around musician Rostam Batmanglij, whose stage name is his first. I was lucky enough to attend a concert of his in Boston over the weekend — it was hands-down the prettiest concert I’ve ever been to.

The venue was a theater in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which seems a bit unexpected given Rostam’s status as an indie music maker. Of course, Rostam himself is not a typical member of his genre, if he is a typical anything. In addition to performing, the 34-year-old Columbia graduate composes and produces music, collaborating with artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX. He is perhaps best known as a founding member of Vampire Weekend, though he left the band in 2016. Since, he has released a solo album, titled Half-Light.

It may already be clear from my excessive background knowledge of Rostam that I’m a fan of Vampire Weekend (a band known for its reference-heavy lyrics). But though I initially listened to Rostam because of his origin group, I still listen to him because his music is, quite simply, good. It’s similar to Vampire Weekend’s, but sweeter: the agreeable tunes are accompanied by more accessible lyrics; the complex instrumental rhythms are less harsh. Many of Rostam’s songs are evocative of a pleasantly nostalgic summer evening.

His performance on Saturday gave me the same feeling. It was almost unbelievably calm, especially when contrasted with the ferocious, high-intensity pre-show set from the five-piece Joy Again. Rostam stood by a microphone, with a drummer on his right and four string players, including a cellist, seated on his left.

Though he was on center stage, Rostam clearly didn’t want his position to be intimidating. He chatted up the audience between songs. He joked about his harmonica (and neck holder, since he had a guitar in hand). He even asked the people in the lighting box to bring the stage into darkness. That way, it was easy to focus on the sounds, although they were accompanied by the bright screen behind Rostam, which displayed slowly-moving, peaceful images throughout the show, from a desert-sky time-lapse to a rotating paisley design, overwritten by Rostam’s name in Persian script.

It was nice to be in a theater seat, not jostling for a view of the stage, able to lean back and soak in the untroubled vibrations of Rostam’s creations. There was something very special about being able to hear tunes I know and love performed live, but not feeling pressured to shout along, or cheer louder than anybody else. I left the concert with the sense that I’d been blessed. Rostam had played a whimsical, unreleased track; he’d gotten the audience to sing a little “ba ba bum” as the background of a certain piece; he’d asked us to stand up for the very last song, to which everybody swayed.

Seeing a musician live is often disenchanting. You might discover that your beloved singer lip-syncs, can’t dance, or is too afraid to hit the high notes. They might not be who you thought they were based on their records.

But seeing Rostam was not like that. I always thought, listening to his releases, that he sounded like he smiles when he sings. And he really does.