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(Emmett McCleary / The McGill Tribune)

From the viewpoint: Rostam brings new songs—and a string quartet—to La Sala Rossa

Arts & Entertainment/Music by

Former member of Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij—performing under his stage name, Rostam—headlined at La Sala Rossa on Feb. 5, touring behind his first solo album Half-Light, released last September. It was, as he proudly noted, the first-ever Rostam show in Canada.

The night opened with a performance by Joy Again, a rambunctious five-piece band hailing from Philadelphia. True to their name, the music was happy and consistent. Not only was the band pumped that their Philadelphia Eagles had won the previous night’s Super Bowl, but they were even more excited to have escaped the tyranny of American liquor laws and be able to legally drink on stage. The lead guitarist celebrated by sipping a beer on stage between riffs.

Between the two acts, the venue filled with an eager, chattering crowd. When Rostam walked onstage, he was joined by a drummer and, remarkably, a full string quartet. It is rare to see two violins, a viola, and a cello gracing the stage of La Sala Rossa, but the arrangement was a master stroke.

Half-Light’s sound is a mix of graceful strings, a hallmark of early Vampire Weekend songs like “M79,” as well as their more heavily-produced rhythms. These styles are held together in a restless, productive tension on each song of the album. Behind the string quartet and a MacBook, Rostam was able to effortlessly reproduce this unique style in person.

Opening with “Don’t Let It Get To You,” Rostam rolled off tune after tune from his album, clearly showcasing his skill at writing pop songs. Early highlights were the rhythmic “Never Going to Catch Me” and the infectious “Bike Dream,” with lyrics detailing the many sides of a romance: “Two boys, one to kiss your neck / And one to make you breakfast.” Even the string quartet danced in their seats.

La Sala Rossa’s intimate gave Rostam a chance to banter with the audience, and revealed the talented musician to be an equally charming guy. At one point he announced, “If you’re here, it’s because you know how good my frittata is.” If only, Rostam.

In working with Vampire Weekend, Rostam has typically been credited as an  instrumentalist and producer, but in his solo work, he steps fully into the vocal limelight. Rostam’s voice is a broad, sensitive instrument, sliding almost lazily between notes and moods; on slower songs such as “Sumer” and “Don’t Let It Get To You,” his vocals expanded to fill the intimate space with warmth and brightness.

Before performing “Wood,” Rostam asked if there were any Persians in the audience. Rostam himself was raised by Iranian-immigrant parents in Washington D.C., and though all his vocals exhibit this influence, on “Wood” he embraces the rhythms and sounds of his Middle Eastern heritage more fully. In comparison with his more concise pop songs, “Wood” takes its time, building up string riffs only to strip them away again.

The highlight of the show came after the encore, when Rostam performed a new, unreleased song, a cover of Nick Drake’s classic “Pink Moon,” before closing with a final reprise of “Don’t Let It Get To You.” It was the audience’s clearest glimpse into his restless and brilliant musical mind.

Between the final songs, Rostam shrugged and said: “We just love making music.” The tightly-packed audience nodded appreciatively; they loved hearing it.

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