The Walkmen never blew up in the same way as their garage-rock contemporaries did.
Most of us remember the Saturn commercial with the Ion driving past the highway signs that read “Leaving Childhood” and “Old Age Ahead.” The tinkling piano in “We’ve Been Had” sounded like it came out of a antique music box but the drums felt decidedly rock.
And like The Killers, Modest Mouse, Beck, and Franz Ferdinand, The Walkmen also found their way on The O.C.’s soundtrack with “Little House of Savages,” which in turn got themselves on thousands of iPods and downloads from the iTunes store (remember when we carried both phones and music players?).
They even performed one of their most raucous and spiteful songs, “The Rat,” on David Letterman. They played at Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, All Tomorrow Parties.
But they never headlined.
Instead of blowing up like The Strokes or Interpol, The Walkmen slowly burned for nearly 15 years releasing a solid album after another.
The band declared a hiatus three years ago. Multi-instrumentalist Peter Bauer said in an interview with the Washington Post, “It’s been almost 14 years now. I think that’s enough, you know?”
And because they never broke fully into the mainstream, that’s why it was so heartening to see Chicago welcome lead singer Hamilton Leithauser with a sold out show at Lincoln Hall. People lined up to the stairway in front of the concert hall’s doorway in winter coats drinking Half Acre tallboys or Lagunitas in plastic cups. People filled Lincoln Hall to the very brim.
Leithauser wore a white western jacket — much like Elvis Presley, except Leithauser’s acoustic guitar is no prop. Ever the crooner, he performed the songs he worked with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij from last fall’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (under the name Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam).
He opened with “A 1000 Times,” belting each line, like “I walked from noon until the night,” while clutching the microphone that the stand almost toppled over.
On the recordings, Rostam augmented Leithauser’s Leonard Cohen-esque songcraft by both creating and filling the space with pianos, banjos, strings, and saxophones. Though this leg of the tour missed Rostam, the rest of the backing band deserves respect and mention.
Spoon’s Eric Harvey was the band’s secret weapon, as he executed each chord on the keyboards and each line on guitar with grace and precision; bassist and backing vocalist Gregory Roberts and drummer Stephen Patterson, both from White Rabbit, backed the band as if they have toured with the rest of the gang for years.
There were a few hiccups throughout the show. He put on new strings on his 12-string acoustic, which went out of tune after a song or two, but it gave him some room on stage to speak to the crowd. And a distortion pedal didn’t work during the bluesy chorus of “Sick as a Dog,” to which Leithauser said afterwards, “I’m 38 and I bought my first distortion pedal. Why did I wait so long?” and likened his purchase to a man in midlife buying a motorcycle.
But the best story was about “The Bride’s Dad.” He traveled to upstate New York for a wedding of an acquaintance — someone he didn’t know all that well. Near the end of the celebration, when everyone had their drinks, an older man stepped on stage to sing the old Scottish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Leithauser thoroughly enjoyed an off-kilter rendition, but everyone’s face turned sour. This old man was the bride’s dad, who didn’t approve of the marriage.
He played most songs from the last record and he also played a few tunes from his solo debut record Black Hours in 2014, including “I Retired” and “Alexandra.” He brought out a nylon-stringed classical guitar to finger pick on “In a Black Out,” which was also among the songs that showcased the band’s vocal chops.
By the time he left stage, the bonafide performer left the crowd wanting more. But he didn’t reappear immediately. He came back minutes later with the opening artist Lucy Dacus to sing a duet with “1959,” of which the studio recording features Angel Deradoorian (former member of the Dirty Projectors). The night ended quietly — softly — with the reflective, even melancholic, lyrics “Don’t count your heartbeats / Your heart won’t beat forever.”
The Walkmen had a long run. But at just the age of 38, Hamilton Leithauser is continuing a streak of writing records that are just if not more masterful than the last.