The Walkmen Whomp at Cat’s Cradle
January 13 – By David Menconi
You rarely see surf music cited as an influence for much of anybody nowadays, much less rising hipster bands from Brooklyn. And yet the Walkmen are the Ventures for the new century — if the Ventures had ever had a swooningly charismatic vocalist out front (or vocals at all, for that matter). Where Vampire Weekend works a Talking Heads-style worldbeat groove, the Walkmen pick up where Dick Dale left off, with some Neil Diamond theatrics thrown in for good measure.
Playing before an adoring throng that braved a bitterly cold weeknight, the Walkmen brought a bit of Pacific waves by way of Brooklyn to Cat’s Cradle with a well-paced and even better-played 75-minute set. It was an atmospheric performance, even if it was missing a lot of the sonic subtleties of the group’s masterful 2010 album Lisbon (Fat Possum Records). The live renditions were more stripped-down, dispensing with the horns and other decorative flourishes of the album versions in favor of raw-power whomp. And a mighty impressive whomp it was.
In particular, drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon showed a great flair for jacked-up surf arrangements, with Barrick motoring through rampaging pile-driver backbeats while Maroon played stabs of skittery guitar hooks that seemed to circle around the songs from high above. Paul Bauer’s spectral keyboard washes bubbled up from below to complete the minor-key aura.
Really, though, it was hard to pay attention to much besides frontman Hamilton Leithauser, whose piercing voice has a way of making you feel as if it’s going right through you and taking a piece of your heart with it. His arresting vocals were so dramatic that it was almost jarring to hear his affable between-song banter (“Lovely to be here but it’s [expletive] FREEZING out there!”). Every time Leithauser spoke rather than sang, it was like an actor breaking character.
Following a very fine opening set by Baltimore’s Lower Dens, the Walkmen’s headlining set began on a quiet, precise and meteorologically appropriate note with “While I Shovel Snow,” on which both Barrick and Bauer wielded triangles. But the band quickly turned up the volume with a set that drew heavily from Lisbon, which cracked the top-30 of the charts last year. Lisbon tracks accounted for half of the 16 songs, but the set also went as far back as 2002′s “We’ve Been Had” (which still has plenty of power despite having appeared in a car commercial for Saturn) and “Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone.”
Other highlights included the aptly named “Angela Surf City,” on which Barrick just flat out cooked; “Blue As Your Blood,” featuring Leithauser’s one and only star turn on guitar (yes, a Fender;); “All Hands and the Cook,” featuring a pulse not too far removed from “Radar Love”; and “Victory,” which built beautifully into an unstoppable force.