Live review: The Walkmen at the Music Box @ Fonda
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Anyone looking for a low-stress showbiz gig might consider trying to roadie for the Walkmen. Wednesday night at the Music Box @ Fonda, this smart indie rock outfit, whose five members are split between Philadelphia and New York, performed for 90 minutes on an unadorned stage without once requiring that a new instrument (or even a second round of beers) be brought out from the wings. A smoke machine appeared to be going about its work somewhere out of sight. But how hard can manning that thing be?
Since forming in 2000 out of the ashes of New York’s briefly buzzworthy Jonathan Fire*Eater, the Walkmen have pursued a remarkably well defined sound, one centered on Paul Maroon’s ringing hollow-body guitar riffs and thickened with Walter Martin’s organ licks and the dramatic croon of frontman Hamilton Leithauser. It’s moody, woozy stuff, but it’s not without drive, which is why the band needed no special assistance at the Music Box. Like AC/DC or a can opener, these guys do a single job as neatly as it can be done.
Wednesday’s show came early in the group’s North American tour behind its strong new album, “Lisbon.” Yet the fresh tunes already had the appealingly rumpled feel of old favorites. In “Blue as Your Blood,” Leithauser strapped on a guitar and plucked out a twangy three-note figure as the rest of the band revved up a rickety rockabilly groove. “While I Shovel the Snow,” a stripped-down lament, recalled Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” For “Angela Surf City,” drummer Matt Barrick upped the tempo to a brisk garage-punk thump, temporarily clearing the atmospheric fog that usually drifts through the Walkmen’s music.
With their reserved East Coast cool and their first-year-investment-banker style, Leithauser and his bandmates confound some of our expectations of what a passionate rock band should look or act like. But that disconnect actually builds a compelling narrative of desire versus restraint into slow-burning songs such as “We’ve Been Had,” in which Leithauser remembers moving to New York “with some dumb haircut from 1960.” The singer repeatedly physicalized that tension Wednesday by shoving his left hand into his pants pocket, as if trying to maintain his businesslike remove. Invariably, though, the hand kept flying out in a spasm of sudden indignation.
“Back to school, back to work / Can this go on forever?” he wondered near the end of “Angela Surf City.” Probably, yes.
-- Mikael Wood