The Walkmen have always been a band of sharp contrasts, and while on paper their pairing with Philadelphia psych-rockers The War On Drugs for a two night stand at The 9:30 Club might not have made all of the sense, in the end their tight, minimalist rock served as an appropriately raw yin to the Drugs more cosmically expansive yang.
Taking advantage of an already practically full house, The War On Drugs blasted through songs off of their most recent work, 2011’s Slave Ambient, employing as many guitars as they could, as loudly as possible. Wrangling layer after layer after LAYER of sound into what ends up a one man army of guitars, Granduciel’s insightful, Springsteen-esque lyrics were delivered bathed in an ocean of twin phasered sound, and what fascinates on record, squarely blows one away when taken in at the foot of the stage. Through songs like “Baby Missles,” “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Brothers,” the Drugs shredded not only ears, but the expectations of many in the crowd.
After a short break, Hamilton Leithauser and the rest of The Walkmen sauntered onto an almost pitch black stage and launched into “Line by Line” off of this year’s critically acclaimed release, Heaven. One of the greatest weapons in The Walkmen’s musical arsenal is the ability to ensure that the listener never feels quite safe. Leithauser’s voice is one of the most recognizable and powerful in music today, and while it wouldn’t be fair to say that he makes the band, it’s that caged animal desperation that informs how the rest of his band mates interact with not only each other but with their audience.
Guitarist Paul Maroon’s straightforward jangle and the spastic yet simple drumming of Matt Barrick both served as foils to Leithauser’s yawlps for the duration of the evening, steering early Walkmen tracks like “On The Water” and “All Hands And The Cook” up out of the menace. On more recent tracks like “The Love You Love,” and “Heartbreaker,” The Walkmen not only sounded more lush than ever, but almost hopeful - a trait that may be the last thing anyone would expect to be associated with the band. Case in point: “We Can’t Be Beat” actually turned into an almost feel-good sing-a-long, with the crowd “whoa OHH OH OHH”-ing as if on cue, lifting the song to anthemic heights only subtly hinted at on the record.
And then it was back down into the darkness and the moment that, for better or worse, everyone in the room had been looking forward to all night. It’s not that “The Rat” off of 2004’s Bows + Arrows is the only good song The Walkmen have written, clearly that’s not true - but it is the best. Everything you could ever need to know about the bands intentions could be found in this one song, and there’s absolutely no shame in writing something this damn good. It neither diminishes nor distracts from the rest of the bands impressive catalog, but instead stands as a permanent record of the heart and soul of a truly fearless and terrifyingly talented group of musicians.
So when the opening chords rang out in the encore OF COURSE the crowd exploded as if some release valve had just been ripped from their collective holding take. It’s moments like this that only songs like “The Rat” can provide, and even if there were minor nitpicks to be had with the bands gorgeous, but at times slow burning, set, if it all comes to this, then what really is there EVER to complain about?
So when whether they are breathlessly shouting the line “When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw / Now I go out alone if I go out at all”, or crooning “I’d give you all my love / But my heart is broken,” when Hamilton Leithauser sings the line “We can’t be beat” one thing is for sure: He’s probably right.