Vulfpeck have a lot of fans. And why shouldn’t they? They are talented musicians that make tight records, and they’ve shown themselves to be shrewd self-promoters with a string of clever marketing campaigns. (Most notable of which an entirely silent EP, Sleepify, designed to be streamed on repeat while the listener sleeps, later pressed to equally silent crowdfunded vinyl.) While it’s true that their music is broadly revivalist, they generally approach their subject matter with a sense of humour; they delight in making reference to the musicians that have preceded them and are keenly aware of the debt their music owes to times gone by. This self-awareness, coupled with their instrumental, vocal and songwriting ability, allows them to play with this dynamic in a way that has earned them a sizeable and devoted following.
This was the third time their customary autumn tour has taken them to the UK, and each time they have played at a larger venue to more enthusiastic young crowds. The band excel at playing to the crowd, and each successive gig has featured more stagecraft, been more of a ‘show’, than the last. This is good fun, but it also has a tendency to obscure the songs being played, and the playing itself. (As did the sound itself, which is sadly never particularly good at the Brixton Academy.) The audience were cajoled into a frenzy by Jack Stratton, wearing his customary red and white sports kit and wireless announcer-style microphone headset. He is the brain behind Vulfpeck, behind their kooky videos and peculiar aesthetic. There is a sincerity to what he does, which is probably what has made it successful.
Vulfpeck bounded from song to song, playing old favourites including '1612', 'Beastly' and an acapella version of 'Back Pocket'. They brought on featured guests in Antwaun Stanley, Cory Wong and Joey Dosik (who was also the support act for the evening). Joe Dart led proceedings on the (non-Fender) bass for new single ‘Lost My Treble Long Ago’ and a number of other tunes besides, eliciting whoops of approval with each bright and funky lick that he played. Let’s be clear, the crowd really dug Vulfpeck, man. Sometimes this, combined with the self-referentiality of their music, can wind up something of a circlejerk, which can be at best confusing and at worst alienating for those not in the know, or rather those not in the [Vulf]pack.
There is a balance to be struck between entertaining the crowd and playing the tunes, and last night in Brixton Vulfpeck strayed further toward the former at the expense of the latter. They could have done with being more connected to each other, tighter and funkier, and they could have tried less hard to reference in-jokes and initiate bassline sing-alongs. That said, I enjoyed a great deal of what was played—it was good fun being swept up in the general sense of euphoria. (Although the more laddish members of the crowd could have toned themselves down and been a little more considerate of those around them.)
Essentially, Vulfpeck sometimes meme a little too hard at the expense of the music, of its simple, low-volume funkiness. Their songwriting and their musicianship is capable of standing up on its own, and they could embrace this live as much as they do on record. It may be that they are better suited to smaller venues, with less fanfare and more funk.
Vulfpeck's new album, Hill Climber, will be released on 7 December 2018. Listen to the first single, 'Lost My Treble Long Ago' on Bandcamp below.