Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Walkmen--Webster Hall, New York City

Up until last year, the Walkmen were a band that I just kind of liked. I thought their first two albums were pretty good and don't think I ever listened to their third (the one with the horns) or fourth (that Pussy Cats covers album). The only time I sort of saw them live was at the 2006 Pitchfork Festival, where I paid about a quarter of my attention to their set while waiting for (I think) the Futureheads to play on the other stage all the way across the park. The Walkmen have played many shows in New York since I moved here later that year, but I never felt like I had to see them.

That all changed with You & Me, by far my favorite album of last year and one that I consider to be pretty close to a masterpiece. It's rare that I have the chance to see a band play in support of an album I love so much. I think that's because my favorite albums are growers, and I never fully appreciate them until whatever tour supporting them is through. So when I saw that the Walkmen were headlining a one-off show at Webster Hall in NY before their tour with Kings of Leon so soon after the release of You & Me but after the initial tour in support of it, I immediately bought a ticket.

I went to the show straight from work and was wearing a suit, which felt strange. I thought about leaving the jacket part of the suit at work, but realized that I needed to use its many pockets for my chattel, so I was one of those guys at a concert in a suit. When some other dude walked past me also wearing a suit while I was ordering a drink, we exchanged looks like "we both suck, but whatever." Suit solidarity, bitches. Anyway, I downed a few $8 Stellas and found a good standing spot to wear a suit and watch the openers. The first band to play was Brooklyn's the Antlers, a pretty standard three piece if you replace a bassist with a keyboardist. Their first song was an instrumental dirge that immediately put me off because I hate those bands that just go on stage and fight the audience with noise and feedback (see Black Dice). But after that first misstep, they emerged with a short set of very solid songs that the crowd seemed to enjoy. Next up was the critically adored Beach House, who are clearly very good, but also very boring. One of my friends described them as like Grizzly Bear (another very good, very boring band), but with a chick. That's just about right.

The Walkmen came on at around 10:15 and opened with a song I'd never heard before, which means it was either a new or one from album three or four. There was whistling in it. After that first number, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, dressed in some sort of Member's Only looking jacket, explained to the crowd that it was the first time in a while that the band had played together and that they were going to play some new stuff. After noting that the next song was not one of the new ones, the familiar opening of "The Rat" put everyone on notice that, rust be damned, the Walkmen came to play. A quick word about "The Rat." Holy shit, that song is so good that I can't even think of what to say about it to do it justice. Apologies to "Hey Ya!" and others that I can't think of now, but "The Rat" is the best song of the oughts. If any band ever made a song as good as "The Rat" and did nothing else for their entire career, it would have been a successful career.

The rest of the setlist was really good. They played "Louisiana," "On the Water," "I lost You," and a lot of other tracks from You & Me. The first set closed with "In the New Year," which sounds better live than on record. The band returned for an encore of "Donde Esta La Playa" and an understated and gorgeous "New Country."

The Walkmen have great stage presence and put on a very, very good show. Leithauser is clearly the focus as he cuts an imposing figure on stage and has a perfect leaning-back-and-belting-it-out rock stance. The great thing about the stance is that its not an act - I think he actually needs to lean back to physically get some of those screams out. It's fun to watch - looks like he really tries. I bet he looks the same singing in a studio. The other star is drummer Matt Barrick. I always thought the drumming on the band's studio output was above average, but seeing this guy play live is something else. He is unbelievable. He can deliver driving, rolling beats ("The Rat") but can also be precise and improvisational (basically all of You & Me). I think he's the reason why You & Me reminds me in many ways of a jazz album. The greatest compliment I can bestow on any drummer is to compare them to Can's keystone Jaki Leibezeit. On You & Me, Barrick does just that.

About four or five songs into the show, Leithauser told everyone that he had turned 31 the day before (tax day) before the band broke into a very sweet, very light version of their first hit "We've Been Had". Standing there thinking about how this guy on stage turned thirty the same year I did helped me realize why I love You & Me so much: with that album, the Walkmen absolutely nail turning-thirty-angst. You & Me is filled with regret and hope (almost entirely summed up in "I Lost You" and "In the New Year"), which are precisely the same emotions I felt last October. This concert served to confirm that the Walkmen have made their masterpiece. I think the reason why it's not universally realized as such is because you have to be a little older to fully appreciate it.

--Jim Powers

Photo by Jim Powers


Brian said...

"I needed to use its many pockets for my chattel." That's gold, baby, solid gold. Jim, I think you and the other well raimented fellow were just keeping it real.

Bill V said...

I really like the band from first seeing them at SXSW several years ago. While we can judge each album, they are an interesting band live and always worth checking out.

Alex said...

That is the best description of "The Rat" I have ever read.

Audrey said...

Is part of what make the Walkmen so amazing live is the way that Hamilton Leithauser makes his eyes glow red as shown in the photo?

Jim P. said...

Definitely. It's like one of those lazer light shows. And if anyone talks any shit, Leithauser just vaporizes them.

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