San Francisco, Ca
For those that started with The Walkmen early in their career, the band’s transition into gentler, more delicate melodies seemed jarring at first; a move with precedent in their earlier records, yet surprising given the predominance of jagged, guitar-driven anthems in their catalog. As they aged together, their tastes evolved towards more refined and classical instrumentation, straying from the raging punk ethos of their youth and following the path of countless performers before them, towards more pastoral work befitting men with more to lose in their lives.
Frontman Hamilton Leithauser molded his defiant howl into a refined croon over the last three Walkmen records, and their work took on a stately quality, a timeless feel that transcended their modern production to a sound that fit alongside traditional front men in the vein of Sinatra and Cash. Since collectively agreeing on a long-term hiatus, the former members of The Walkmen have embarked on a wide range of solo endeavors with Leithauser continuing the trajectory by diving deep into the well of classic crooners with his offering, Black Hours. A collection of late night whisperings, whiskey drenched walks home, and the occasional euphoric burst of straight up rock-and-roll, the album plays like a natural extension of his day job’s sound, while mixing things up enough to be unmistakably the work of a distinct solo artist.
Though he wrote much of the material on his own, Leithauser enlisted the help of his longtime Walkmen collaborator, Paul Maroon, as well as Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij to flesh out his ideas. In the studio, he brought in the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman for backing vocals, The Fleet Foxes’ Morgan Henderson for a variety of instruments, and The Shins’ Richard Swift for drums, among others, creating a cast of seasoned musicians that contributed their own sensibilities to make a record far more collaborative than most initial solo efforts. There’s no mistaking Leithauser as the star of the show, but he gracefully shares the spotlight and Black Hours is all the better for it.
His first live outings with the new material were accompanied by mini-orchestras, cramming enough personnel onto the stage to bring to life every string swell and horn burst from the studio, but he’s since pared down his touring outfit to a four piece band, featuring Maroon on guitar and piano. Filled out by a bassist (Skyler Skjelset of Fleet Foxes) and drummer, the band can’t perform every intricacy, and the songwriting shines all the more for their lineup limitations. Instead of making a melody sing through a sheer density of instrumentation, they display each track in its simplest, most striking form, the perfect approach for an intimate venue like The Chapel.
It also provides the ideal foundation for Leithauser’s vocal acrobatics, giving enough instrumentation to surround him and never enough to overpower. While he strummed rhythm guitar parts like a natural, his power remains mostly at the microphone, where his every glance and swallow becomes imbued with meaning by virtue of the words that follow, and their urgent delivery.
There’s a classic pose he does — one I’ve seen him pull every time I’ve caught The Walkmen — where he’s got his head cocked back a bit and off slightly to the side, clutching the microphone and looped cord, pausing with a thousand yard stare before throwing an emphatic shrug, bulging the veins out of his neck, and letting loose another shot of furious wisdom or breezy observation. He prowls the stage, moving more with his eyes than his feet, taking command of the space and nearly confronting the audience, searching, like he’s looking for the next words he’s going to sing, then slips into another croon and leans right into the microphone stand, making for the most intense lounge singer you could hope to find. When you add in his polished dress and professional demeanor, Hamilton is almost the product of another era, a time traveling jazz singer who crash landed in a noisy rock band before returning to his true calling.
His work with The Walkmen remains some of my favorite modern music, but it’s nice to see Leithauser in a new context where he can fully explore his musical leanings and pull off far more playful arrangements. Whether it’s dropping into an Elvis drawl on “I Retired,” trying a lot of tenderness on “St. Mary’s County,” or going full bore on “Alexandra,” the wide range of his talents are on display, making a fairly convincing case for his status as one of the preeminent singers on the circuit. He’s come a long way from his early work, stocked with mumbles and howls, to a time that he can be very reasonably compared with some of his earliest inspirations. Hamilton doesn’t have the polish of Ol’ Blue Eyes, but he’s got a good deal of the soul, and a whole lot more self-awareness.
Near the end of the set, the rhythm section left the stage and Leithauser and Maroon did a three song duet, stripping the songs to the bare minimum and balancing everything on their well established chemistry. Watching them flow off of each other effortlessly, clearly enjoying themselves in the process, I started to wonder what happened with the rest of the gang, whether there had been divisions within the group, but right as I started to wander down the rabbit hole of conspiratorial speculation, Leithauser rounded into another heart skipping wail, finding some mysterious tone way up in the ether and pulling us all into it, eclipsing my irrelevant analysis with transcendent performance — exactly why I go to these things in the first place.
The best music, and especially the best musical performances, are so viscerally gripping that you slip inside the songs entirely, inhabiting their worlds concurrently with your own, sometimes even leaving your world behind. Over the years, no band has seeped into my consciousness more than The Walkmen, and it’s thanks in large part to Leithauser’s casual poetry and singular performance. Whether or not he plays with the old boys again is beside the point; as long as he keeps performing, as long as he keeps providing me with moments of shock and awe, I’ll be satiated. Sure, there’ll come a day where he hangs up the towel for good, but I’m not ready to discuss such dark matters.
With the full band onstage, they ripped into “I’ll Never Love Again,” a song written during the vocalist’s tenure with The Walkmen that more clearly carries the reckless thrash of his former outfit than most of the other material. As much as I appreciate his explorations of more traditional songwriting, I never find Leithauser better than when he’s at the center of a storm, screaming against a wall of guitars and making sense out of chaos.
After one more, they closed up shop and we demanded an encore. They came back, a sly smile across the singer’s face as he looked around the room at the appreciative faces and blooming weed plumes, and said, “You are all very stoned and very kind.” They played one more, and he shrugged and said, “That’s all we know,” before shaking hands with the front row and walking off stage.