Without question, The Walkmen have had an impressive spanning over a decade. Within that decade, they’ve released seven full-length albums and played almost half a thousand shows. Even for most of 2012 which saw the release of their latest album, Heaven, they’ve been relentlessly touring, opening for Florence + the Machine and playing numerous festivals across the world. On Wednesday night, the New York/D.C.-based quintet returned to Los Angeles to finish off the second half of their tour at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater.
Joining The Walkmen for a string dates and opening the night was Los Angeles five-piece Milo Greene. Many music blogs and publications have put the band near the top of their list as one of the bands to watch in 2012, backed by the release of their debut self-titled album. It also helps that they have been making a run at the late night circuit, having played on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman’s shows to broaden their mainstream exposure. And their performance in front of a hometown crowd proved why they are on a rapid rise. What those televised performances don’t show, however, is each band member’s impressive musicianship as throughout their 44 minute set, switching instruments numerous times.
They opened their set with “Don’t You Give Up On Me” and followed with a new unknown-titled song that featured post-rock-like guitar melodies (ala Explosions in the Sky), which sounded perfect in the open-air venue. On the slower, repetitive number “Silent Way,” guitarist Andrew Heringer picked up a banjo to add a more folk quality to their set. Electronic percussion added a new dynamic to the Marlana Sheetz-led “Perfectly Aligned,” where the rest of the band provided Fleet Foxes-esque vocal melodies.
While nearly every band member took their turns taking over lead vocal duties (minus drummer Curtis Marrero), Graham Fink sang lead on “Cutty Love” and showed that he is more than capable of being a lead. They closed the set with their single “1957,” which on record sounds like a Local Native track with the lingering guitar riff and percussive rim shots. But in a live setting, they’re definitely a lot more complex than that with multiple vocalists singing different verses and interweaving vocal melodies that transcend into the night sky. But before they exited the stage, things got a bit surreal and majestic during “What’s the Matter” where a few deer poked their heads and walked through the brush atop the hillside that provided the backdrop for the stage. As my friend whispered over to me after their set, it’s not often that you see a band draw out wildlife through their music, but Milo Greene’s folk-tinged rock certainly has that ability.
Going to the venue for the first time, I questioned for a minute or two whether a seated venue is appropriate to see a band like The Walkmen. But at the end of the night, they proved that they are perfect for any venue of any size. Guitarist Paul Maroon was the first to come out on the dimmed stage, playing a few guitar lines to open “Line by Line” as the rest of the band came out afterwards to a chorus of cheers. They opened their set with a couple of slower numbers from their latest album, following up the first song with “We Can’t Be Beat.” Frontman Hamilton Leithauser displayed his uncanny ability as a dynamic vocalist, howling the line “it’s been so long” with incredible range that saw his voice soar into the sky. The tempo picked up on the song “Heaven,” where the lyrics of maintaining a friendship resonated more vividly and emotionally in a live setting.
A brass quartet came out on stage for a trio of endearing songs – “Red Moon,” a stunning rendition of the lonely-themed “Stranded,” and “I Lost You.” The horns added a whole new dynamic to their songs that emphasized highly emotional themes embedded within. In a seated venue, it is a bit difficult to get up and move along to the music without hindering the view of others, especially with the songs played in the first half of the set and addition of a brass section. But that changed as drummer Matt Barrick played the opening beats to “Angela Surf City,” drawing nearly everyone out of their seats to jump up and down. At this point everyone stood standing for the rest of the night.
What’s most impressive about Leihauser is his stage presence, commanding attention through his sheer and raw vocal deliver while displaying his versatility. His unique vocal style easily brings to mind 60s rockabilly icon Roy Orbison, and that showed on “On the Water.” But it’s not only through the use of his powerful voice or by making his performance look effortless in a suave suit. He also does it through his charm and wit, jokingly saying “I expect half the people to leave after I say this, but Dave Matthews is right across the street” (who was playing at the Hollywood Bowl) and later when a helicopter flew over, “Matthews is taking off right now,” which drew laughs from the crowd.
For their surprising five-song encore, The Walkmen played a handful of older songs beginning with “All Hands and the Cook.” While they didn’t throw in “The Rat” (a song that most in the crowd kept shouting out) they did play another fan-favorite in “We’ve Been Had.” As soon as multi-instrumentalist Peter Bauer played the opening melodies on the piano-led song, nearly everyone standing was singing along to Leithauser.
Seeing a band like The Walkmen play in an open-aired venue surrounded by a natural environment was almost ethereal. You can’t helped but be drawn into the performance backed by a clear night sky that created a near-indescribable experience.
Line by Line
We Can’t Be Beat
The Love You Love
Blue As Your Blood
I Lost You
Love Is Luck
Angela Surf City
On the Water
In the New Year
All Hands and the Cook
The Blue Route
Donde Esta La Playa
We’ve Been Had