Review: The Walkmen at Middle East

 The Walkmen, live at Middle East downstairs on September 18, 2009
By DAVID BOFFA  |  September 23, 2009

Video: The Walkmen live at the Middle East downstairs on September 18

It was strange to see the sparse instrumentation from which NYC’s Walkmen drew their atmospheric, honey-dipped sound last Friday at the Middle East. One half-expects walls of antique organs and a throng of guitars, but only a single keyboard and a reverb-thick hollow-body limned the luscious textures of sonically dense favorites like “On the Water.”

The performance was subdued to match. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser, fresh-faced as a prep-school kid with his open leather jacket and white button-down shirt, stood at the mic and deftly belted verses about too-long days and decades that fly by, but barely moved a muscle, save for his jaws. Meanwhile, guitarist Paul Maroon, sporting a sweater and a two-day scruff, only managed the slightest of head-bobs during “Canadian Girl,” even as three trumpets and a trombone harmonized with his equally scruffy guitar fuzz. It all sounded splendid, but just a little too laid back — this is supposed to be a rock show, after all.

Things got more lively once Leithauser belted his seven-second note during “All Hands and the Cook,” a shot of raw passion that seemed to jar the band loose. Leithauser’s jacket and Maroon’s sweater were duly discarded before the scathing opening verse to “The Rat” (“You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor/You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number”). And with this sudden injection of vigor, the single keyboard/single guitar combo suddenly sounded tenfold as strong. “In the New Year” was a tour-de-force of hollow-body bellows and sinuous organ melodies. Leithauser nearly bent over backward before roaring, “I know that it’s true/it’s gonna be a good year.” And as he sang it later in that same song, the Walkmen certainly “took [their] sweet time” warming up, but our patience was paid back in full.

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