WASHINGTON, October 25, 2012 —The Walkmen’s front man Hamilton Leithauser took the stage in a suit and tie, which seemed perfectly appropriate for the band’s recent show at the 9:30 Club. Occasionally, venues will invite a band to appear in a solo performance, often dubbed “An Evening with….” Shows like this often feel like they’re intended as a retrospective on the band. While the Walkmen weren’t the only band on tap for this particular show, the Walkmen’s set nevertheless had that retrospective vibe, moving as it did through the entire decade plus that this band has been together.
The band’s history is relatively well known to its fans for having incorporated the remnants of critically acclaimed indie rock band Jonathan Fire*Eater, with two members of the Recoys.
Actually, the band’s connection goes back even further, as four of the members attended local D.C. prep school St. Albans. So it’s easy to say that their 9:30 Club appearance was something of a homecoming for the Walkmen, even though they relocated to New York years before the formation of the band.
Lasting effects the band’s DC-style sound still linger with this band, probably stemming from its early origins in this area. That said, they clearly exhibit New York based references as well, putting out a sound that feels deeply rooted within the New York scene. The Walkmen’s music feels at times like it would be perfectly suited to serve as a soundtrack for some gritty film portraying the never-sleeping city they now call home.
The Walkmen are often viewed as a garage rock band or a group of post-punk revivalists, but neither of those classifications seems to fit. The band’s formal suit-and-tie appearance on stage consciously invokes a look that’s quite reminiscent of the Jam and their jangly pop melodies, dating from the early ‘80s. So in that sense, there are some parallels between both bands. But it doesn’t really help us much in understanding and evaluating the current band’s live performance in 2012.
For one, deploying those two genres as markers for a band implies there’s something loose and occasionally impromptu about the Walkmen’s sound. It also suggests that they have a somewhat aggressive style that simply isn’t there.
In reality, the Walkmen play in a particularly mannered style. This is one of the keys to enjoying their live performance. Everything they perform has feels on an even keel, as if everything is completely under control. Nothing seems left to chance. The music is never pushed, never kicked radically up-tempo from the beginning to the end of their set. Their music is definitely pop. But it’s ‘60s guitar pop, or a mod revivalism, as if a Wes Anderson film were put directly to music and then performed live on stage.
Ultimately, the mood the Walkmen create seems most like something the very best singer/songwriter troupes might put out if those bands were more focused on fostering a more lighthearted audience appeal. In fact, considering Leithauser’s very affected vocal style—consciously cloning the vintage British pop scene—the Walkmen, somewhat surprisingly, sound like what Bob Dylan was probably hoping to achieve when he went electric.
There is one difference, however. Even though the Walkmen don’t push the tempo much at all during their set, that restraint never stops them from gunning for a huge sound throughout most of their set. This isn’t a band that thrives on small introspective moments, but instead, pursues a much bigger, more fully realized emotional spectrum. This makes the Walkmen easy to relate to as they conjure up a sense of timelessness and continuity during their live performance. That, no doubt, amply explains why they sold out their two nights at the 9:30 Club.