03.03.2012 The Walkmen at Union Transfer, Philadelphia

Despite the wintry defeat at the battle of Union Transfer by them Heartless Bastards last week, hope lives on. And I must apologize in advance if I immortalize The Walkmen, but they left very little to be desired from live music.

I know what you’re thinking: “Big deal, Surviving the Golden Age is gonna hype The Walkmen, again.” You would be right, we are going to hype the Walkmen, and yes, again, because The Walkmen just might be the best working band in America. Say what you will, ye hipsters of little patience and great taste. Their albums do tend to run long, and yes their ratio of rocking to thinking is heavy on the thought side. There might be some mote of pretension in the group’s insistence on using period instruments to fill out the dynamics of a track. Though thine arms might cross, and thoughts turn towards calculation of orchestrated manipulation of emotion, all while gazing shoe-ward, verily, I say unto you, raise your eyes, see and hear and think for yourself on this one.

While most bands with a dozen albums or more are content to allow lesser tribes to attack first, The Walkmen forewent any contrivances and cut to the quick. Like some grizzled biker behind the bar in a Texan honky-tonk, they delivered straight, without benefit of chaser or ceremony, three straight hours of music. It’s important to keep in mind though, this is a tenth anniversary celebration, and like that rich uncle you never see they’re giving us the gift.

The progression of any show one sees live (or most albums for that matter) generally uses the same principals Mr. Spector set out decades ago. Arrest attention with the wall of sound until the emotion builds to the point of hysteria, then pull back, issue the break down, utilizing a slow, thoughtful song to rejuvenate the audience before thrusting them right back into frenzy. Building to crescendo, relenting and building again creates the sonic equivalent of waves breaking against shore. It’s well understood and a well used practice, another trick hidden up the deep sleeves of any group who’s been in the music industry long enough to begin anticipating retirement.

But not The Walkman, they would rather turn the equation on its head. They began slowly, monotonously after Mr. Leithauser walked onto stage as if at an open mic night, then segued without comment or foreshadowing into the fury that is “The Rat.” But it wasn’t to be a night of rage, because it was followed again by an atmosphere number, “What’s in it for Me?” before building tempo again.

The audience was split. We didn’t know what to think; slow, fast, slow fast, with no precedent or precursor, ripping at the very fabric of our expectations. They introduce the horn section, brought out especially to compliment the music on their least popular but perhaps best record, You & Me.
To watch them on stage, the organist lost to a universe of melody, the guitarist with his classically bad mustache sincere and intent on a rhythm heavy enough to crush the room, while Mr. Leithauser screws his eyes up into the balcony singing to bring down the rafters. A look of torment flitting across harrowed eyes, until you spy Mr. Barrick behind all on the skins, with the biggest shit eating grin on his face. He’s easily the most talented–if not the most energetic of the caste–and while he plays, one gains the perspective that despite a background position, he takes the greatest joy from the pure act of making music.

I could go on and on about the flagged emotions during the intermission, about the crowd being much cooler than one should reasonably expect, about an invitation to Reykjavik from a traveler who was much more interested in The Walkmen than America, about a fist fight with a member of the opposite sex, about losing my voice from singing along and pogoing to faster numbers, about the fever sweat of commingling with the crushed hundreds at the foot of the stage, or I might just wrap it up thusly:

There is very little in this life that brings joy. There is very little to make you think while believing. There is little about music that one cannot reasonably roll their eyes at. There is very little to share with those unnamed faceless masses we interact with daily. But The Walkmen, my brother in arms, they subvert these things. The king is dead.

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