Hamilton Leithauser likes to wear crisp suits, has an aristocratic name and led a band — The Walkmen, now on indefinite hiatus — that (sadly) forever lurked in the shadows of their more high-profile, hipper New York City brethren. Not exactly standard criteria for a front man.
Yet, Hamilton penned the most bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll song of this millennium. Seriously—listen to “The Rat” again, and you’ll agree.
That strange dichotomy is what the made the perennially-underrated Walkmen so enjoyable — they all looked like nice boys, but they were rock stars. Hamilton Leithauser is a rock star.
That last sentiment was on clear display Wednesday night, June 10th at the Independent, where Leithauser played in support of his debut solo effort, Black Hours, released last year to strong critical acclaim.
Like many of the Walkmen’s albums, Black Hours segues seamlessly from mid-tempo numbers to ambling, somber pieces to more classic indie-rock style tracks. But for anyone who has seen the Walkmen live knows, it doesn’t matter what kind of songs are being played — Leithauser sings each one with an unmatched intensity, adding immeasurable gravity to every performance.
On Wednesday night, he spit, he clenched his teeth, he gesticulated, he gripped his mic like he was trying to squeeze every bit of life out it. For every song, Leithauser, backed by a three-piece band, transformed into a feral caterwauler, unleashing his trademark howl at every opportunity (he must have long ago mastered some pretty impressive diaphragm secrets — a normal man’s vocal chords would crumble to dust under that burden.)
Leithauser opened the set with “I Don’t Need Anyone” and “11 O’ Clock Friday Night,” before introducing Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend (who produced Black Hours) for “Alexandra,” the relentless and insistent high point of that album. Batmanglij stuck around to play “I Retired,” before he and the backing band departed the stage, leaving just Leithauser and Paul Maroon, the longtime Walkmen guitarist who is now touring with his one-time bandmate.
The duo played three tracks off an upcoming collaboration they’re working on, before the rest of the band came back to perform “The Smallest Splinter,” and “I’ll Never Love Again,” along with a couple of unreleased tracks.
Like always, Maroon’s guitar work was flawless — a shimmering, clean contribution that added contrast to the coarseness of Leithauser’s vocals. Leithauser’s drummer, Hugh MacIntosh (his former bandmate with The Recoys and brother-in-law; they like the WASP names in that family, apparently), displayed a manic devotion to the kit that evoked memories of the Walkmen’s peerless percussionist, Matt Barrick.
Leithauser seemed to enjoy an easy rapport with his bandmates, cracking jokes and throwing around high fives, behavior that is not entirely typical of the focused front man. After a succinct, hour-long set, he came out for a one-song encore, the quiet, brooding “5 AM.”
It was a typically-businesslike performance for Leithauser, who never once mailed it in during his time with the Walkmen, even when the band started fraying in its last days.
It remains to be seen if he’ll ever receive his due attention, but Leithauser is really an indie-rock institution at this point, and that status will only be cemented with performances like the one he delivered on Wednesday night.