Like a punk band scoring a gothic Western, the Walkmen delivered a set at the Ogden last night that came off as a unique chemistry of contrasts. Blending all the feverish energy of rockabilly inside a tightly controlled package of casual style, the band turned a crowd of hard-drinking, high-energy maniacs into perfectly still lapdogs, staring wide-eyed and perplexed at a group executing the impossible by achieving grand, explosive sentiments at a fast tempo without losing their delicate, hypnotic intimacy.
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Without a single ounce of dramatic build-up, the Walkmen's entrance, like their music, was very simple yet impactful, with the band walking casually onto a stage lit with dull, vintage-looking footlights reminiscent of The Grand Ole Opry or the Dean Stockwell crooning scene in Blue Velvet (which may not be a coincidence, considering the scene's use of "Candy Colored Clown" by Roy Orbison is as direct an influence on The Walkmen as you can get).
When the band drifted into the ominous chords of "On The Water," the stage dimmed, and a pale yellow spotlight centered on vocalist Hamilton Leithauser. The whole scene looking refreshingly different from the retina exploding strobes and swirls we're used to with big rock shows these days. Leithauser and company then lumbered through these first few songs, playing at a slightly slower tempo than the album recordings, gradually working their way into the performance like a cold machine creaking back to life.
If you're the kind of person who likes to compartmentalize a band's sound into a genre, then seeing the Walkmen live can be a dizzying and frustrating affair. Blending the romance of Sun Studios, the speed of L.A. punk and the soaring vocals of Rogers and Hammerstein, the bandmembers have created a signature aesthetic, their musical anatomy revealed while also being transcended. Instead of focusing on the contrasts of their collective influences, they find the commonalities between them, which makes for a simply structured yet beautifully conceived blast of inspired rock.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Father John Misty. While singer J. Tillman was charming with his effeminate wiggles and shimmies (a fun contrast to his burly frame and porcupine beard), and the music did have moments of interesting decoration, the whole of it was the same predictable, Southern-fried indie gospel we've heard churned out time and again for the last five years. Ultimately, it all comes off live as a poor man's Fleet Foxes (Tillman's former band), which is essentially a poor man's My Morning Jacket.
Whether delivering mid-tempo songs like "In the New Year" or sprinting declarations like "The Love You Love" or "The Rat," the Walkmen never lost their urgency -- that is, once they found it, which, admittedly, took some time. "I was wondering if pot was legal here," Leithauser said, referring to the thick haze clouding up their spotlight like a 1950s movie projector. "I guess that answers that."
Now entering their thirteenth year, the Walkmen found their sound a long time ago and aren't interested in varying from it. And while it's a beautiful, enchanting sound, the similarities from song to song left you feeling grateful that the set was only slightly over an hour -- any more, and the lack of variation could have begun creeping toward tedium. As it was, the Walkmen delivered a timeless performance of style and momentum, but what else would you expect from a band whose name is both a reference to dated musical technology and the most basic descriptor of the most universal human action?
Personal Bias: "Canadian Girl," off the album You & Me, has been on every mix CD I've made since last summer -- and has been the inspiring soundtrack to a few crushes, as well.
Random Detail: Apparently hard drinkers with broken hearts really love the Walkmen, because every booze-loving, lovelorn person I know in Denver was at last night's show.
By the Way: At one point in my notes I described the Walkmen's sound as "extreme control with a playful center, like a young child surrounded by armed guards," and then suddenly realized my metaphor had entered the gun-control debate.
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