Live Review: The Walkmen at the Belly Up Tavern, September 18, 2010

Photo credit: Doug Sopfe

Back in early 2004, The Walkmen rolled into San Diego, touring off of their breakout album Bows and Arrows. I had yet to hear the album, and the nation was still about six months away from unanimously agreeing that the searing anthem “The Rat” was the best rock single of the year.

So it was just dumb luck when a friend and I — having just moved to the city and wanting to introduce ourselves to the live music scene — basically closed our eyes, pointed to the concert listings, and chose The Walkmen. At the Casbah. It was a hell of an introduction. Front man Hamilton Leithauser was a whirlwind that night, slightly drunk, perching on the monitors and throwing around mic stands, and stalking the stage like he owned the place and everyone in it. We were all instant fans.

Saturday night at the Belly Up, the band returned to San Diego with three more albums under its belt and the cool composure that comes with that experience. Left hand in his jacket pocket and right hand on the mic, Leithauser brought a more collected swagger this time around, standing mostly stationary up front and looking thrift-store dapper in a boardroom blazer and corduroy pants. In fact, the whole band is attractive — including baby-faced Matt Barrick, who looks like he’s drumming for his college internship — and left the girls swooning and the guys with man-crushes as they rocked through a set list based around their new album, Lisbon.

The band doesn’t stray far from its patented sound, and doesn’t have to. The reverbing clang of Paul Maroon’s guitar sounds out complex, catchy riffs, layered with warm bass lines and characteristic church organ (the instruments swapped alternately between Peter Bauer or Walter Martin) over drummer Barrick’s tom-heavy backbeats. While the songs may sound the same in principle, the band sets each one off on its own with twinkling music-box piano here or a trimmed down two-step there (as on the new track “Blue as Your Blood”), and Leithauser always tags on a unique chorus to shout along with.

Late in the show with the organ simmering and the bass drum pounding, the band pulled off an impressive slow build of “All Hands and the Cook,” with Leithauser working over the chorus line “Won’t you tell me?” — first squeaking it quietly with head-exploding restraint, then throwing his head back to wail it the next time around. The moment was powerful enough to quell a nearby drunken social retard’s constant pleading for “The Rat,” at least for the moment. They did eventually wrap up with “The Rat,” which electrified the crowd just like it did that first night years ago at the Casbah. The song ended as it does on the recording, with those four familiar flub-dub drum beats, and it was hard to tell whether they came from the bass drum or my own chest.

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