THE WALKMEN + Mazarin @ Cabaret La Tulipe

By Fraser McCallum - F-Train 120 - 01/27/2006

The Walkmen don’t say a whole lot, but they make up for it in sheer stage presence and an electrifying music delivery. Combining organ-driven melodies with an energetic and tight rhythm section, and the vocal acrobatics of lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, the Walkmen have a very original and dynamic sound that translates into a stunning live show. Armed with an arsenal of new songs from their upcoming third album, the Walkmen returned to Montreal for the first time since December 2004 on January 27th, playing an 80-minute set at La Tulipe.

The night was opened by psychedelic rock newbies Mazarin, who hail from Pennsylvania. This writer only managed to catch three songs of the opener due to the wonderful inconsistency of the green line; however, what was seen was fairly mediocre. Over-loud guitars and clunky drums amidst fairly average vocal deliveries seemed to just leave many yawning and awaiting the headliners. That being said, however, the audience would not be disappointed with the second act.

The night truly began when the five-member New York rockers, the Walkmen, took to the stage to huge applause from the packed La Tulipe crowd. They opened with a guitar-driven new song that had lead singer Leithauser playing rhythm guitar while exploiting his usual sing/shout vocal style right away. The song featured both organ and piano trading melodies and a charging floor-tom driven rhythm. The Walkmen jumped right into a couple of older songs from 2004’s Bows & Arrows after this, playing crowd hits "Hang on Siobhan", "Little House of Savages" and "What’s In It For Me?”. All three Bows tracks were sped up and had Leithauser setting aside his guitar to thrash and scream on the mic, at some points shout-singing so passionately that the veins in his neck looked as though they might just explode all over the front row.

From there, the band slowed down and introduced two more new tracks from the tentatively titled All Hands and the Cook. Both featured Paul Maroon (guitar, piano) Walter Martin (organ) taking turns playing the old clangy-sounding organs which seem to dominate the new album extensively. Perhaps sensing the audience’s disconnect from these new songs Leithauser took an audience suggestion and played Bows favorite "Thinking Of A Dream I Had" during which he climbed atop a stack of amps, throwing his head back to hit the highest notes while drummer Matt Barrick thundered on the toms behind him. This was truly one of the night's most exciting and satisfying tracks, and it was obvious that the band thoroughly enjoyed performing it as well.

The show continued with the defiant-yet-depressing title track from Bows & Arrows, my personal favorite song of the evening. Leithauser’s raspy croon was never more effective and hard-hitting than on the chorus, where the lights went out and only La Tulipe’s disco ball spun light upon the stage. After the final few notes, lead guitarist Maroon immediately launched into the best-known Walkmen song, "The Rat", to huge audience applause. Leithauser was at his best, shedding his guitar and his coat and thrashing around the stage. His voice, although peaking at times, became thick with emotion and he had the entire audience singing along on the dramatic bridge “When I used to go out I’d know everyone I saw/now I go out alone if I go out at allllll!”. This rampaging track had all five Walkmen at their best with razor sharp guitar licks and show-stopping drum-work especially. Following "The Rat" was another new song from All Hands and the Cook, a slower ballad that had Leithauser back on guitar and the other members, save the drummer, rotating on pianos and bass. Then with a simple “thanks Montreal…”, the set was over and the Walkmen left the stage.

It wouldn’t be a Montreal rock show without the granted encore, although it was well-deserved on this night. The Walkmen re-emerged to play three more songs to the happy audience. The first two were a sped-up version of Bows track "My Old Man", then an untitled grungy rock track from the new album. Then for the last song of the evening, they launched into old favorite "We’ve Been Had" from their 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. This track featured both organ and piano splashed beautifully on top of each other with a warm and weighty bass line from Peter Bauer while Leithuaser changed to a heartfelt croon and stared longingly into audience as he rounded out the anthem and said farewell.

The show was one of the best of the year in this writer’s opinion combining thundering drums, burning guitar hooks but also subtle atmospheric organ and piano to create a beautiful New York sound that builds and transforms masterfully. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, unquestionably the band’s leader, pulls the audience into his heartfelt almost bitter ballads before charging back with some of the most passionate and original rock songs in recent years. Leithauser does everything that the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas fails to do with this kind of indie music. Where Casablancas comes across as bored and apathetic, Leithauser stands tall, breathing energetic fervor and sincerity into garage-rock songs of heartbreak and urban defeat. The Walkmen invoke thoughts of other bands like the Interpol and the aforementioned Strokes, but in this live setting they came off as a well-crafted hybrid of the Replacements and Frank Sinatra. The Walkmen’s music, unlike that of a lot of indie rock bands of today, transcends perfectly to the stage. The show was a very dreamlike and exhausting one in an excellent way, filled not with road stories and anecdotes but with both subtle undercurrents and seething, hard-hitting, rock ballads. Here’s hoping for a swift Montreal return for the New York quintet.

[Tune in to F-Train 120 Tuesdays from Noon to 2pm]