There’s a huge, pulsing vein on the side of Hamilton Leithauser’s neck. Anytime the Walkmen frontman howls, which he did pretty frequently last night at Terminal 5 while headlining one of CMJ’s biggest shows, that vein throbs uncontrollably. And as he yelps, he sometimes squeals a bit, too, but in a way that’s completely focused and precise, holding the microphone close to his mouth like a freshly picked apple, leaning back, cocking his head at a 45 degree angle, and squeezing out heartbreaking lyrics of love lost and nostalgia.
The Walkmen were born in New York City. Their debut record, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, was recorded in a homemade studio in Harlem back in 2001. That first album, much of which deals with misperceptions and love gone wrong, bleeds Gotham’s influence. It, of course, helped define the band’s sound: A blend of vintage guitars and the use of an upright piano, all underneath Leithauser’s controlled and poignant squawk. But moreover, with songs such as “We’ve Been Had” that embrace self-aware lyrics and critiques, the band revealed that they weren’t just another bunch of rockers trying to drink beer and be young forever, but rather utilized their fears about growing up too fast as a strength. Fans latched on, and the group followed up with Bows + Arrows, the record that gave the world “The Rat,” arguably one of the most culturally defining songs of the aughts. Its bridge, “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw / Now I go out alone if I go out at all,” became an anthem for young, fresh-faced kids moving to the city with hopes of one day calling themselves real New Yorkers. It’s still found played on repeat in bars across the city, and, yes, people do still sing along. The likes of the Killers or the White Stripes may have been playing across the country’s rock radio stations, but in a certain sector here, no band was more important than the Walkmen.
The Walkmen recognize this, or at least understand the influence this city has had on their careers. Last night between songs, Leithauser said that the show felt like a “real homecoming,” even though none of the band members live here anymore. Back in May, in an interview I did with bass and organ player Peter Bauer, he told me New York has “always been our hometown in terms of playing.” The fans seem to know it, too. I overheard a couple guys behind me counting the number of times they’ve seen the Walkmen, and kept losing track. On the way out of the venue, another girl mentioned that every time she’s been to a Walkmen concert–“which has been like a million times”–they’ve never disappointed. “Duh,” her friend said in reply. “Why would they?”
These days, many of the members have spouses and kids and dogs and backyards, and probably do go out alone, if they go out at all. Their sixth record, Heaven, which was released earlier this year, was recorded in Seattle (Seattle!) with the same producer (Phil Ek) responsible for much of that sensitive music from the Pacific Northwest, which tends to produce a certain kind of music that a certain kind of music fan likes to hate. Overall, the album was received mostly positively, but a few places noted this change in approach. SPIN called it “brunch rock”, with former Voice writer Camille Dodero noting it was “suitably palatable background music for the locavore café that serves fried eggs with beets, ricotta-and-fig sandwiches, and kale as a side.” And maybe that’s true. But it’s hard to fault the band for playing music that might be a more appropriate soundtrack for sitting on back porches versus doing whiskey shots at the bar. After all, you write the life that you know.
But last night, the Walkmen avoided brunch. After opening the show with a few cuts from the new album, the band took a turn for their earlier work in their career. Leithauser meant what he said about the show being a homecoming, as he seemed to be returning to an old self that used to walk the streets of Harlem. He channeled someone greener, more innocent, more naive. During a rendition of another classic Walkmen track from their 2008 record You & Me, “In the New Year,” he crooned his blind optimism wholeheartedly over rolling guitar strums: “It’s gonna be a good year, out of the darkness, into the fire, I’ll tell you I love you.” Later, the cuts went deeper, with performances of “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone” and “Hang On Siobhan.”
The moment in which the band truly embraced their younger selves was during the four-song encore. Opening with “138th Street” from Bows & Arrows, Leithauser reminisced about recording in the “loudest” studio in New York, following that up with “Louisiana” from A Hundred Miles Off. Then, despite being known for being reluctant to playing the track live these days, they launched into the prowling, driving opening guitar riff of “The Rat.” The band members, all dressed in their respective version of layering blazers and collars and ties, vibrated around stage, with concertgoers joining Leithauser in screaming and shaking. After they wrapped, they surprised everyone with one more: “We’re the Walkmen; we’re originally from New York City,” Leithauser said through a squint. “I’ll see you around, this is ‘We’ve Been Had.'” The piano suddenly fluttered and Leithauser quietly sang his lyrics of seeing himself change, and after finishing, he set down the microphone and jumped into the crowd, walking around, shaking hands, and high-fiving anyone who swarmed him, submerging himself once again in New York City.
Critical Bias: This was the first time in my life that I’d seen the Walkmen. It was a Big Moment.
Overheard: “That’s the best fucking song ever!!!” -Dude next to me after a solid rendition of “In the New Year.”
Random Notebook Dump: Surprised I’ve only seen one fedora.
Line By Line
The Love You Love
Blue As Your Blood
Angela Surf City
On the Water
In the New Year
Hang On Siobhan
I Lost You
Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone
All Hands and the Cook
We Can’t Be Beat
We’ve Been Had
610 W. 56th St., New York, NY
The Walkmen – Terminal 5
Tunes to Play After You’ve Been Fired