For me, the appeal of seeing the Walkmen play live has always started with the peculiar way lead singer Hamilton Leithauser holds the microphone. He palms it high up on the apparatus, the cord winding around his arm like a snake, and he sings into it sideways. In fact, his entire stage presence is a bit off center. He usually positions himself at a diagonal angle to the crowd instead of facing them head on. And as he sings, he glances off into the corners of the rafters.
This has always seemed symbolic of the band’s singular, somewhat skewed approach. Leithauser and company don’t do anything particularly radical with their instruments, but they’ve managed to create a sound that is very recognizably their own. On August 21, playing the first of a two-night stint at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Walkmen showcased how that signature sound takes form on the band’s new album, You & Me.
Before the Walkmen played, Richard Swift put in a bouncy, soulful opening set. The prolific, eclectic singer-songwriter, dressed in a black suit and coiffed with an impressive afro, was joined by a three-piece backing band going by the name of the Sons of National Freedom. Swift switched back and forth between playing keyboard and guitar throughout the set. When he was on the keys, he sounded very much like Randy Newman. He kept his stage banter simple — “That was the first song, this is the second”; “This song is in the key of C” — preferring to plow through his rollicking numbers. He closed the set by leaving his instruments behind to focus on some sultry crooning, hitting high notes that rivaled My Morning Jacket’s Jim James for best Prince impression by an indie rocker.
It’s quite obvious that a band knows it has an accomplished new album on its hands when it doesn’t shy away from playing large chunks of it in concert. So it was with the Walkmen and the material from You & Me. The group opened its set with five straight songs from that record. After the plaintive “New Country,” things started to rev up with the rolling guitar strumming and drum work of “On the Water.” Things went full blast with “In the New Year,” a song that is quickly taking its place in the pantheon of Walkmen greats. Leithauser gave the vocals his all, and then some; I remember wondering at the time how he could scream that much on what was only the third song of the set and expect to have a voice for the rest of the show.
Sure enough, by night’s end his voice was all but gone. But his commitment helped make “New Year” a highlight of the night. And as Leithauser lost himself in the song, a vein bulging in the side of his neck like it was ready to explode, I realized that that off-center style of his also helps him get away with such histrionics. If he were to try to pull moves like that while addressing the audience head-on, he’d be Bono, overselling his convictions in a desperate attempt to win as much crowd love as possible. Instead, Leithauser seems not oblivious to the crowd, but rather too lost in his own artistic catharsis to pay primary attention to the audience.
The Walkmen worked through most of You & Me throughout the rest of the performance, sometimes joined by a three-piece horn section. The new songs sounded better than older material. “Wake Up,” a killer cut of the Walkmen’s debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, was lackluster here. And selections from Bows + Arrows and A Hundred Miles Off just seemed like filler between You & Me cuts.
It wasn’t until the encore that the older tunes started to shine. After a disappointing run through You & Me opener “Donde Esta la Playa,” the Walkmen revved into “The Rat.” Always a crowd pleaser, the song brought all the energy and anger expected from it. After that, the Walkmen closed with “Louisiana,” which the crowd had been yelling out requests for all night. It was by this time that Leithauser’s pipes were scratched up, but his raspy crooning only added to (along with the horn section’s drunken honking) the song’s sloppy charm. Besides, the band is talented and charismatic enough to make up for a lead singer’s few missing vocal chords.
Photo Credit: Dese’Rae Stage/Prefixmag.com