Recap: The Walkmen's Free At Noon performance at World Cafe Live (5/4/12) - WXPN
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Photo by Joe del Tufo

The Walkmen have become family men. Of course, growing up as high-school friends, there was always a familiarity—and even a familial aspect—to the brotherhood among the five members. Yet, though the band was never particularly edgy, over the years they have softened in many of the ways that they were once rough around the edges. Known for driving, repetitive rock, and the vocals of front man Hamilton Leithauser, The Walkmen quickly garnered comparisons to The Strokes. In 2002, within two years of becoming a band and buying a recording space in Harlem, the group released their debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. The album received critical praise and the track “We’ve Been Had” was used in a Saturn car commercial. Their sophomore album, Bows + Arrows, which contained the hits “The Rat” and “Little House Of Savages” brought the band national recognition. They were quickly booked for concerts, festivals and even to play on an episode of The O.C.

For the next few years, The Walkmen basically wrote the music they wanted to, recorded it at their studio, Mercata Studios, on vintage equipment and enjoyed the success of being a professional band. They recorded a cover album of Harry Nilson and John Lennon’s “Pussy Cats.” The same year, they shut down Mercata. It’s been a long, but overall successful 12 years for The Walkmen, and this month they release their seventh album. The men said in interviews that this was their easiest album to write; they had more songs than they needed and ended up whittling it down for the final Heaven track list. That sort of creative energy and output is promising for any fan, and the album doesn’t fall short. From live performances of it, though, Heaven seems quieter than their previous records. That’s only one quality that makes it family-friendly. The album itself is family-oriented. The cover art and website feature the band members’ children and wives. As did the audience at Free At Noon.

The show was a family affair, as many of the bands’ young families were in attendance. Little children ran around in the back of the venue, while the men of The Walkmen played songs off of their new album. The men are a class act: no antics, no frills. They wore wedding bands, crisp outfits and boating shoes. Most members has coiffed hair. Though many aspects of their distinct sound were present, and the put-together look was not new, their show left the impression that they are less a rock band than a group of men who can create successful rock music. While there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s more than can be said for a lot of groups, it created a sense of distance early on.

Until “Blue As Your Blood,” there was almost a veneer to the performance. It was clear that The Walkmen were recording a live show of their new material for NPR, and it was obvious from the get go that old hits would not be played on Friday. This didn’t stop audience members from dancing and enjoying the music, but it communicated a professionalism and stoic maturity that most rock bands don’t exude, and that The Walkmen didn’t always possess. Fortunately, when Leithauser dedicated “Blue As Your Blood” to his cousin, the mood relaxed a bit. It helped that the next song, “Love You Love”, was a big, electric-rock ballad. Of course, “Love You Love,” sounded cleaner and more family-friendly than the group’s earlier work. With the upcoming festival season, it will be interesting to see how The Walkmen present their new album in larger venues and during shows not intended for NPR. With summer vacation approaching, it will be curious, too, to see if the men take their kids on the road. For this album tour, it wouldn’t be a surprise. And if it inspires the quality of music on Heaven, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. —Naomi Shavin

Set List:

We Can’t Be Beat
Heaven
Heartbreaker
Southern Heart
Blue As Your Blood
Love You Love
On the Water
Love Is Luck

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