The first time I saw the Walkmen live was in the winter of 2004 just after the release of its sophomore album, Bows + Arrows. I was living in Rochester and the closest the band was coming was Toronto—some three-plus hours away. I ended up driving there and back in the same night alone.
And recently, when the band posted a small five-date tour in the Northeast to road-test material from their upcoming album (suspiciously leaving our mutual hometown of New York off the list), I didn’t get pissed. Instead I bought a ticket, took a “personal day,” and hopped the Chinatown bus to Boston.
* * *
This is my first time in the Middle East since my senior year at Boston University. Upstairs a quaint restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine as a folk singer strums a sitar. Downstairs, one of the best venues in Boston plays host to a full room of college students several nights a week. The room is dark and the ceiling hangs low. The brightest light in the entire place rests above the merch table, drawing eyes to bands’ members as they peddle albums, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.
My friend and I stroll to the bar and order a couple $2 Pabst tall-boys. The room is full of thrift store shoppers continuously angling for better views of the stage while trying not to appear too interested. Several couples nearby are making puppy dog eyes at one another. I notice there are a number of tall women who seem to be here alone.
Three years ago I sat in this room excited about my future, but tonight I find myself sentimental, thinking about my past. It is only appropriate that the Walkmen are serenading me: it’s a group that promotes setting fire to the useless relationships and unavoidable responsibilities that come with growing old.
As usual, the five members stroll out nonchalantly, dressed like they fell out of Banana Republic’s fall catalogue. At the front is Hamilton Leithauser. Sporting a sweater-vest and chinos, he’s dressed more for a library than a rock show. But the moment he opens his mouth and Matt Barrick begins attacking his drum kit, the kids know this is no library and these are no prep-school posers.
There are many reasons I travel hours and hundreds of miles to see this band play. Chief among them: “The Rat”, “Thinking of a Dream I Had”, and “Bows and Arrows”. The band wisely breaks out “The Rat” early in its set to appease the masses. Playing their strongest and most recognizable song to date, Hamilton spastically lurches over the monitor, dropping sweat on the heads of his anointed fans—some jump to catch the drops.
I pound away at my friend’s back as the intro of “Thinking of a Dream I Had” comes reeling in behind Christmas sleigh bells and a guitar so sharp it feels like I’m getting a close shave. Barrick’s drums gallop like a line of dominoes falling down a 150 flights of stairs, then grow quiet as Hamilton pleads “so don’t lead me on.”
“Bows and Arrows” is a song I associate closely with someone I lost, and tonight it seems especially haunting. The guitars shiver; Hamilton hangs his head down low and he sings with the desperation of a last-ditch love letter: “We will keep this up as friends this time/ nothing is wrong/ ... we will be alright.”
The new material sounds tighter than it has the last few times I’ve heard the band play. They opened their set with the new song “The Cheetah” and add three or four other tracks whose names were inaudibly muttered—one seemed to be called “Louisiana”. The songs are catchy and as I hear them I become confident that the new album will be another in the band’s string of excellent works.
When the band breaks before their encore, we move closer to the stage, wisely distancing ourselves from the bar. When I hear the opening piano ticklings of “We’ve Been Had” someone yells “I wanna go buy a Saturn!” I’m stunned to realize that the person is me. I’m rarely a vocal participant at shows, but I am too drunk to reason, and I am content to scream along with Hamilton.
I rub elbows with several people nearby as we all dance in place. The whole room smells like sweat and whiskey. The last thing on my mind at this moment is my future or my responsibilities.
On the bus that day I was stressed about finding a new place to live and a new place to work—all the typical worries that come along with growing up. But right now the biggest concern in my clouded mind is not catching up on work when I get back, but instead making sure to pick up any vinyl the band might have on sale after the show. And that prospect comforts me more than anything else possibly could.