you’ve got a nerve

a wee review of the walkmen’s gig at shepherd’s bush empire, written for the fly last week:

The Walkmen
Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
25/01/2011

It is very hard if not impossible to go to a Walkmen gig and not spend a large part of the show anticipating the moment when they will play their 2004 masterpiece , ‘The Rat’. Which does a disservice to a band who having been together for the best part of ten years and six studio albums in, are on tour, basking in the critical glow of almost universally rave reviews of their latest LP, ‘Lisbon’.

Still, when lead singer Hamilton Leithauser unassumingly appears on stage, his lazy, nasally vocals floating out over The Walkmen’s trademark marching drums, there’s a flash of uneasiness to ‘Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Has Gone’, from 2002’s eponymous debut album. But the New York-Philadelphia five-piece quickly hit their stride with guitars taking hold half way through the opener, instantly engaging a well-filled Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Visually they are an unappealing lot, ambling on to a minimalist stage in the sort of casual suits more befitting suburban civil service workers than credibly cool NYC garage rockers. But this is a gig for music fans, not fashion followers, and anyone who agrees with the fine reviews of The Walkmen’srecent offerings is not disappointed by the display tonight.

Next up is a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Angela Surf City’ – one of the highlights of ‘Lisbon’. Clever guitar work and rhythm changes on the latest album are laid bare, loud and clear, on the likes of ‘Blue As Your Blood’ and ‘Victory’ as the first half an hour of music is pure immersive emotion. There is a definite lull in the pace midway as Leithauser croons his way through ‘Look Out The Window’ and ‘On The Water’ before taking a Pinter-esque pause with the reflective tones of ‘While I Shovel The Snow’. But a steady stream of 6Music airplay makes sure ‘Juveniles’ – the one that sounds eerily similar to Rod Stewart’s ‘You’re In My Heart’ – gets a warm reception.

Leithauser’s impassioned drawl shapes the band’s sound both on and off stage – drawing inevitable Bob Dylan comparisons – but their accomplished live performance is set apart by the slick guitar work and commanding drumming, which is less polished but no less brilliant when performed live. That is why The Walkmen are undoubtedly at their peak when playing full-throttle, as they show by launching into a sprightly and rejuvenated rendition of ‘Woe Is Me’ towards the end of the set. ‘The Rat’ is rather too predictably reserved for the encore but is no less exhilarating, sacrificing only a small amount of its drama to the audience’s lingering expectation. The only surprise, perhaps, is that it is not the final song.