Rostam live at Fine Line: An intimate, string-driven show


Rostam sings the verse of album highlight “Sumer,” backed by a powerful string quartet. Photo by Marin Stefani ’18.

Marin Stefani

Rostam sings the verse of album highlight “Sumer,” backed by a powerful string quartet. Photo by Marin Stefani ’18.

It’s around 8:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and opening band Joy Again finish warming up the stage with an enticing chorus of guitars and jazz scales. A playful introduction to the main act, former Vampire Weekend member Rostam, whom the crowd awaits eagerly. Having left the critically acclaimed band in 2016, Rostam has focused more on original releases and creative collaborations. In September of last year he put out “Half-Light,” a fantastic, profound LP filled with summer melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Tonight’s show at Fine Line would see him showcase tracks off the album, as well as covers and older songs, for an intimate and genuine performance.

The lights dim, and the drummer and a string quartet enter the stage. Excitement builds amongst concertgoers; many of whom, familiar with Rostam’s music, know that live string players will add a meaningful touch to the orchestra-heavy songs off “Half-Light.” Eventually Rostam arrives, hardly concealing his shyness yet smiling and casually talking to the cheering crowd. He opens with album closer “Don’t Let It Get To You (Reprise),” only backed by a violin and a recorded piano. It’s a short, simple song that settles a tranquil mood in the room, before the band picks up the pace with album opener “Sumer.” A recorded carol-sounding choir and repetitive live sleigh bells ironically give the track a wintry feel, and Rostam’s confident singing brings a welcome warmth on this cold Wednesday night. Because most of the album singles came out last summer — or had been released individually over the years — I always associated them with the sea, hotter temperatures and longer days, and there is something comforting about listening live to familiar, sun-filled tracks in the dead of winter.

The band follows up with “Never Going To Catch Me,” violin-driven “Wood” and peak summer track “Bike Dream,” maybe my favorite from “Half-Light.” Thumping drums and swirling strings complement the track’s warm, buzzy synth line, making it even better than the studio version, and giving it a colorful summer feel. The lyrics, however, contrast with that elated tone. According to the singer in an interview with NPR, the song recalls “wanting the person you’re with to be two different people, maybe two different kinds of people.” Having had that experience before, the lyrics resonate with me. Carried by Rostam’s powerful yet vulnerable voice, the lines roll throughout the song in nostalgic melodies, making “Bike Dream” the highlight of the show.

Amongst following tracks are “EOS,” backed by eerie visuals on the large screen behind the band, and the bombastic, horn-heavy “Rudy,” a fun, carefree moment much appreciated by the dancing crowd. Rostam then prefaces album title track “Half-Light,” joking that although today is a day for happy couples, the song, a heartfelt account of a hopeless relationship, is not meant for them. He and the band conclude with “Gwan,” beautifully interpreted by the talented string quartet, and Rostam exits the stage for a minute before coming back. At the end of a short encore that sees the artist covering Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” the drummer starts playing the rolling drum pattern of “Don’t Let It Get To You,” echoing the beginning of the concert. Like “Bike Dream,” it oozes summer nostalgia, and puts a smile on my face.

Overall Rostam delivered an excellent performance, aided by a welcome arrangement of strings that complimented the tracks perfectly. My press photo pass allowed me to position myself on the side of the stage, where I could see the band well, which made the experience even more intimate. Rostam is bashful, one can tell, and perhaps not totally comfortable being on stage, yet his joy is tangible when he sings, and his presence feels real, genuine. “Half-Light” was one of my favorite albums of the year, and hearing it live in the middle of winter made me connect with it even more. And now I can’t wait to listen to those tracks again in the summer.

“Half-Light” is out everywhere; get it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify. If you have a record player, I definitely recommend buying the record.