I had never seen The Walkmen live before, nor had I known anyone who had seen them live, and yet I was more confident that I was going to be thoroughly entertained Wednesday night than I would have been for just about anything. I’ve always liked and respected The Walkmen – I’d known they had been together for a long time, and they just seemed to have the air of a band that knows what they’re doing, and in turn, knows how to entertain a live crowd. After they came out and played a song or two with frontman Hamilton Leithauser toting a black and white telecaster to match his white shirt, black blazer, and the rest of the band’s similar dress, I have to say I started to feel a little worried inkling that I might have set my expectations too high. It felt like they were holding something back, and the first few songs they played weren’t that much more than adequate recreations of their recorded versions. I was thankfully proved an idiot, however, because as soon as Leithauser took off the guitar, let his vocals go, and got into a groove, the rest of the night was history and The Walkmen actually ended up exceeding my admittedly lofty expectation.
That’s not to go without mentioning The Helio Sequence, who were everything you could ask for in an opening band. There were already a significant number of fans packed in close to the stage before the duo from Portland came on, and as soon as they showed their faces the crowd went wild. There were clearly a lot of people just as excited for them as they were for The Walkmen. They opened with “Lately”, the first song off their most recent release, 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead (they also played “Shed Your Love”, “You Can Come To Me”, “Hallelujah”, and the album’s catchy title track). Brandon Summers is a seasoned and gracious front man and did a great job with the vocal and guitar duties, but drummer Benjamin Weikel was the most captivating part of The Helio Sequence’s live show. His playing style was unlike any other I had seen, as he wore a fixed, open-mouthed grin the entire time he banged the hell out of his drums, especially the two crash cymbals he had set up, in a kind of robotic groove that was extremely effective and just as interesting to watch. Along with Summers’ guitar and some effects they were playing over, the duo made an incredible amount of noise for two people, and the crowd loved it. As they finished a song toward the end of their time, they began to mill around like they might be done, before someone in the audience emphatically yelled, “Yes we have time! Yes we have time!” Summers then thanked the crowd and said that the next one would be their last. They finished with a song that I couldn’t place, either because I’m not that familiar with their older stuff or because it could have been a new song (they’re working on a new album). Either way, it didn’t disappoint and ended to more uproarious applause as Summer and Weikel left the stage smiling and the crowd thinned out and made their way to the bars.
The Walkmen came out fairly quickly after The Helio Sequence finished up and started off with “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone” off their 2003 debut album of the same name. Not only were The Walkmen great, but their setlist was nearly perfect. They played just enough songs from their forthcoming release Lisbon, as well as a varied array of songs from over the course of their career, including everything we could have wanted to hear. LIke I said earlier, I thought we were going to be in for a good, but not great show after the first few songs led me to believe Leithauser’s vocals were going to be burdened with a guitar around his neck for most of the set. A few songs in, however, he put the guitar away, unwound the mic cord from its stand and the band started into “In the New Year” off their 2008 release You + Me. Like almost all The Walkmen’s songs, “In the New Year” is carried by Leithauser’s vocals, and for the first time all night his voice absolutely came unhinged, as he would bend over backwards and face the ceiling to let out bone-chilling wail after wail. Next they played “Angela Surf City”, the first single off of Lisbon, and once again Leithauser’s vocals came to the forefront.
While the rest of The Walkmen are steady, solid, and ridiculously tight (drummer Matt Barrick stands out in his own right, however), it is impossible to deny the gravitating appeal of Leithauser, who seemed to pop on stage. He isn’t flashy, but he is a dominating front man, with a stage presence that is hard not to revere when you factor in not only his voice, but how he can transfix an entire audience with it. He was calm, cool, professional, and took a well-deserved break and sip of water after nearly every song. These weren’t the types of performances of songs you could just burn through; Leithauser and Co. poured their heart into every one, and I felt like I needed a break to regroup in between them just as much as they did.
They ended the set with a song that I wasn’t that familiar with: “All the Hands and the Cook” off of A Hundred Miles Off. This was the unequivocal highlight of the night for me up that point. It begins with ominous keyboard tones and a subtle, but driving drum line, and eventually built up to Leithauser putting on what was one of the most amazing vocal displays I’ve seen, as he bent over and let go a series of perfectly raspy yells, each of which he sustained for longer than I thought was humanly possible. I basically didn’t even know where I was when I was watching this, I was so taken aback.
For the encore, Leithauser once again strapped on the telecaster to play a brief introductory song before taking it off again and starting into “The Rat”, their furious single from earlier in the decade that is how many, myself included, discovered the band. Barrick had been great all night, but his drumming during the buildup here literally gave me goosebumps. He was completely letting loose and couldn’t have been ripping harder as he bounced along on his stool. Leithauser’s soaring, patient vocals seemingly cracking open over this ravenous beat couldn’t have sounded better. The Walkmen are at their best when this contrast between Barrick’s furious, hurried drumming and Leithauser’s deliberate, blossoming vocals is highlighted. It’s no wonder “The Rat” was so popular, or that “Angela Surf City”, which has a similar effect, was chosen to be the first single off Lisbon. After they finished “The Rat”, I really just wanted them to stop, because I didn’t want them to do any damage to a set which I already felt was perfect. Once again, they were one step ahead of me, and finished the night off with the lovely “Canadian Girl” to cool everyone down. After I got home I was delighted to listen to some of The Walkmen’s albums with an entirely new appreciation for their music. I guess that’s the first sign of a kickass live performance.