At first, it seems like any other club rock show. Kids, many from Harvard, decked out in the indie uniform of blazer, tousled hair and random vintage-tee, crowd the floor waiting for the band. But when they do, unlike the angsty, screaming opening act the National, the Walkmen look anything but rock ’n roll. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, tall, blonde, with classic Upper East Side prep school good looks, and the rest of the band, clad in similarly conservative sweaters and button down shirts, quietly tune.
Then Leithauser bellows, “Greetings, earthlings!” and the Walkmen start to play. They start to rock.
If the Walkmen’s appearance suggests a bunch of rich kids ready to whine into a microphone, their Friday show at the Middle East Downstairs proved their music far surpasses expectations. Their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, started a whispering campaign about ‘the new Strokes,’ but the tracks sounded much more lushly atmospheric than the taut, concise rock of that other New York band.
As Leithauser said in an e-mail, “The first record was very much a recording project. We owned our own studio, so we weren’t paying by the hour, and we could just sit there trying out different instruments forever,” alluding to the heavy focus on instrumentals on the album.
That all changed on their new record Bows and Arrows, a nearly flawless mix of driving rock songs and more intimate musings on loneliness, confusion and isolation in love and elsewhere—themes familiar to the band, but better expressed on this new recording.
“This time we wanted to get into the room just as a band and perform the songs together,” says Leithauser. “The overdubs were minimal, so it comes off more like a show. We can perform basically the entire thing live.”
Not only did the Walkmen perform most of Bows and Arrows at the Middle East, but they put on one of the most exciting rock shows in a long time.
The show started with “What’s In It For Me,” immediately exposing Leithauser’s characteristic swooping and diving boom of a voice over fuzzy, layered organ chords. Also the first track on Bows, the song seems a logical album opener, but Leithauser says he originally opposed using it to start the record. “Actually, I was the only one against it,” he says. “I thought I sounded too sensitive or fragile or something for it to be the first thing people hear. So, anyhow, I lost that battle. Regardless, it sounds like an opener, so I think it works as a first song.”
The Walkmen immediately segued into “The Rat,” a pounding song about mixed relationship anger and apology in which Leithauser growls, “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor/ You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number” and continues “Can’t you hear me/ Pounding on your wall?” Possibly one of the finest moments on Bows and Arrows, “The Rat” powerfully set the show in motion.
Just like on Bows, it is really the Walkmen’s newfound balance between tight instrumentation and commanding vocals that made the show at the Middle East so thrilling. Hamilton Leithauser seems to sing at a level above which his throat might explode. But he doesn’t need to scream because he seems to throw his heart, anger and just enough volume into every note he sings. He knows when to dominate the stage and the music, but, unlike many other rock stars, frequently steps back to let the band shine. Peter Bauer’s bass and Paul Maroon’s guitar slid seamlessly between what Leithauser described as the “fuckin’ angry” beat of “My Old Man” and the subdued loneliness of “138th Street.” And Matt Barrick—possibly the most enthusiastic drummer out there, judging by the amount of time he spent off his seat—kept every song moving. Keyboardist Walter Martin provided the melodic base for most songs, but he left the piano playing to Maroon.
About the piano: it’s a seemingly ancient little instrument which the Walkmen famously tote around from show to show, and it maintains a nearly comic presence on stage. It sounds part Fisher-Price toy, part tinkly player piano, and looks like the centerpiece of some 19th century saloon. But it comes in handy for the Walkmen, who use it centrally in “We’ve Been Had,” the first song written for Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me and the first single, familiar to some from the Saturn Ion car commercial from early in the Walkmen’s career.
Leithauser has no regrets about the decision to sell the song. He relates frankly, “It was the money. We figured it would come off a little tacky—which it did—but we really needed the cash, so we just went ahead with it. I don’t think many people made a connection between the car, commercial and the band, which is fine by me.”
Regardless, “We’ve Been Had” exemplified the Walkmen’s attitude toward being young and disappointed in New York City: “Well I’m a modern guy/ I don’t care much for the go-go/ Or the retro image I see so often telling me to keep trying...See me age 19 with some dumb haircut from 1960/ Moving to New York City/ There with my friends, we’re all taking the same steps.”
The crowd at the Middle East seemed especially excited to hear this old favorite.
That’s one thing about the Walkmen—they appreciate a crowd, and showed their appreciation with the exhilarating closer “Little House of Savages,” and three encores, one of which was a cover of a song about Boston called “Into the Mystery.”