|Big Hassle Publicity|
Last time I caught The Walkmen live was at Coachella ’06, where the New York City-via-Washington D.C. band’s ramshackle brand of garage rock was engulfed by a mid-afternoon main stage slot.
When the debut CD Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone came out a decade ago, The Walkmen were branded “the next Strokes” by music tastemakers. Although the comparison didn’t exactly match up sales-wise, a large cult following, more prolific recording schedule and steady support from college/NPR stations (including KCRW) ensued.
Heaven, the exemplary new studio effort, went top 5 on the College Music Journal album chart. Produced by Phil Ek (known for his work with Fleet Foxes, The Shins and Built to Spill), the rich stylistic aesthetic is more pronounced than ever. All the ringing electric and acoustic guitar shadings would surely meet Johnny Marr’s approval. The Foxes’ Robin Pecknold even does a guest vocal turn (both acts toured together and played The Greek last September).
Saturday night at The Observatory, The Walkmen started their excellent 80-minute show in measured fashion with a stark, piano-led “Hang On, Siobhan.” On the recorded version, from 2004’s Bows+Arrows, frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s woozy rasp recalls The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan. In concert, he practically crooned the lyrics about last call at a downtown bar. It was an example of how the quintet has matured and progressed over the years.
The Santa Ana venue was packed. Fans crammed into the pit area in front of the stage and pogoed along to all the uptempo songs. Clad in a suit and tie, Leithauser was gracious toward the audience and recalled past appearances (“we have been here so many times; this used to be a home base for us”).
Animated drummer Matt Barrick bounced up and down on his seat. Yet Paul Maroon seemed to have the most fun. Rarely moving onstage, he continually smiled between doing some shimmering, reverb-drenched runs on his Rickenbacker and Gretsch electric guitars.
Bathed in dim light, Leithauser’s raw howls on “All Hands and the Cook” were intense as Peter Bauer quickly switched from piano to Farfisa organ. Other times, he impressively moved between instruments within the same song.
Racing relationship tune “The Love You Love” (with clean guitars and snappy rhythm), plus the pop-infused “Heartbreaker” were early standouts. Equally compelling was the transition from a visceral rocking “Angela Surf City” to the sincere alt-pop of “Love is Luck.”
Later, The Walkmen really proved their mettle during the dramatic uplift of “We Can’t Be Beat.” Leithauser started with a whisper quiet vocal and the other guys provided rare backing harmonies. Enthusiasts bopped along to the aptly named “Heaven” - complete with rollicking guitars and romantic overtones – as well as the jangly “Woe is Me.”
For the encores, it was a double shot from Bows+Arrows: the subdued “138th Street,” with Leithauser on acoustic guitar, and a frantic take on their signature song “The Rat.” Everyone onstage pulled out all the stops for an exciting finish.
Milo Greene opened the evening with an impressive, 40-minute set of lush alt-folk that sometimes swelled to Arcade Fire-styled proportions. It was far more enjoyable than when I first caught the group last November at the Wiltern with The Civil Wars (maybe because it wasn’t so stifling inside Observatory).
The roots of Milo Greene were formed at UC Irvine, where some members were students. Since 2011, the quintet – everyone except the drummer trades lead vocals and instruments – has had their music featured on television (“Grey’s Anatomy,” a Levi’s commercial) and on local stations KCRW and 98.7 FM. A few months ago, the Los Angeles-based band put out its self-titled debut album, which entered atop Billboard’s Heatseekers chart for developing artists.
Sandwiched between the eight-song set were three brief instrumentals. “Don’t You Give Up on Me,” was the first selection to spotlight the group’s interwoven harmonies; a dreamy “Silent Way” was leavened with banjo.
Lone female musician Marlana Sheetz mostly played keyboards atop an American flag-draped table. Her honeyed pipes on “Perfectly Aligned” were downright spacey. Graham Fink has the strongest voice of the four and his spotlight on the soaring “Cutty Love” fared best. Elsewhere, the heavenly “Autumn Tree” and fierce ending chant for “1957” were definitely memorable.
The Walkmen at the Observatory, Santa Ana, Calif., Sept. 15, 2012
Setlist: Hang On, Siobhan/All Hands and the Cook/The Love You Love/Heartbreaker/Blue As Your Blood/Juveniles/Line By Line/Angela Surf City/Love is Luck/Woe is Me/The Blizzard of ‘96/On the Water/The Blue Route/In the New Year/We Can’t Be Beat/Heaven
Encore: 138th Street/The Rat