Through the years with The Walkmen at Union Transfer (photos, review, video)

For once, The Walkmen seem comfortable enough to take a quick breath and a look back.

Their seventh studio album, Heaven, is just over six months old, they’re heading out on a new round of tour dates in support of it. And appearing at Union Transfer on Friday with twelve years of back catalogue under their belts, the New York / Philly five-piece appeared relaxed moreso than rushed.

This wasn’t always the case. Used to be this was a band where I  could always count on their live shows containing zero material I was familiar with. A Pi Lam set in early 2003 featured mostly songs from Bows and Arrows, which wasn’t released for another year and change. A 2007 show at Johnny Brenda’s happened not long after their homage to Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats came out, but it largely showcased You & Me, which wasn’t released until 2008. And so on. The band was always looking forward, and that’s why we loved them.

Taking the stage on Friday following an opening solo set by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth (and after treating a handful of fans to a spaghetti dinner and a warm-up set of covers), The Walkmen were fully in retrospective mode. The songs on Heaven had been in the crowd’s consciousness long enough that we could sing along with “The Love You Love” and rock out to “Heartbreaker” with familiarity. We weren’t trying to parse the unknown, or determine our thoughts and first reactions – we knew we liked it, we knew Heaven might just be the band’s finest work to date, and we could just run with it and enjoy it.

From there, the band pulled from the past – heavily at first from Lisbon and You & Me. “Angela Surf City” was a lively rocker, while the majestic “Stranded” ushered in a four-piece horn section for a stately effect. This was a band, we could see, that had truly grown into its own sound. Earlier, for the rousing “In the New Year” frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s macho falsetto rang from the rafters while a side-stage light created a goliath shadow of him on the venue’s wall, serenading the balcony. “I Lost You,” on the other hand, was a mellower affair, bringing the mood way down.

If The Walkmen’s set on Friday had a shortcoming, it was this introspective, quiet middle section. The band does this very well, and the flourishes of horns make it positively moving. But as I said earlier, for so long we’ve grown used to them galloping forward at a breakneck pace in more ways than one. Having so many somber songs at once get the masses a bit antsy.

With the encore, the band rebounded in force. The nervy “What’s In It For Me” from Bows and Arrows launched into a propulsive take on The Walkmen’s signature number, “The Rat,” its mid-twentysomething ennui and frustration ever ringing true – “When I used to go our I would know everyone that I saw / now I go out alone, if I go out at all.” This was quickly followed by the swinging early hit “We’ve Been Had” that had the capacity crowd singing along with total joy. And this was, in the end, the night’s triumph.

I think “proud parent” might be the wrong metaphor – we’re talking about a band that is either the same age as me, or older. But to watch them grow so gracefully, and to connect with a bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen them play to, was thrilling. The Walkmen should have no qualms about taking this breather (ableit a hard-working breather) – they’ve earned it. And cheers to what’s next.

  • Les H

    Well said! I was on the balcony also probably not too far from your vantage point. It was our first Walkmen show and from the very first number we were entranced. So much so that all weekend became devoted to downloading all the records that we did not have to complete the collection. We came loving Lisbon and Heaven but left loving much more. This band restores my faith in good, solid music. The ” dreamrock” ” Pitchfork” scene has been getting out of hand lately. It’s The Emperors New Clothes over and over again. Everything is so great and hip but when you listen to it it just doesn’t ring true. God bless these guys

    • John Vettese

      Thanks Les! Glad you’re digging into The Walkmen’s back-catalogue too…theirs is a strong one. Which record are you digging the most? I have a soft spot for Bows and Arrows, but their rendition of the Harry Nilsson record Pussy Cats is a whole lot of fun – very underrated IMO.