When I saw Hammilton Leithauser play at a tiny club in the college town of Ann Arbor, MI in 2004, it seemed like he spent most of his time not on the stage but a few feet above it, balancing on the edge of an amplifier, screaming until a forked vein shot across his forehead. How much longer would his vocal chords last if he kept singing like that, I wondered.
I called my younger brother the next day. "There's this band called The Walkmen. You've got to hear their lead singer…"
And, for the next seven years, Jon and I never missed a show, road tripping to see them at festivals, two nights in a row sometimes. The venues got larger, the band's wardrobes more sophisticated as the years passed. We'd sing along to unreleased songs, having spent hours of scouring the internet for live videos. (I still think this (http://bit.ly/mXJSi3) song, played once for an AOL session, is one of their 15 best, easy. They never released it, opting instead to lift some of the lyrics for the much softer "Canadian Girl.")
Though they'd all claim otherwise, the band's trademark fire has burned to ember over the years. Drummer Matt Barrick is more likely to deal a slow shuffle from his sticks than he is to sustain an impossible roll of 16th notes. Leithauser's wail hasn't lost its power, but these days, he uses it more for dynamics, spanning from scotch ad-smooth to full-fight screech at the end of "All Hands And The Cook," a song which has supplanted "The Rat" for me as the height of their live show. But, more often than not, he's crooning.
Maybe it's all for the best. Your favorite band should age and mature the same as everything else. You'll always find new bands to follow. I can remember the night Jon gave me a breathless post-concert recommendation: "There's this band called Fleet Foxes. You've got to hear their lead singer…"
What I didn't anticipate is that the genre of indie rock itself becoming passé. "I don't even listen to music with instruments anymore," said a music critic friend of mine lately. When L.A.'s marquee venues start showcasing best-in-class indie rock artists–for instance, the Fleet Foxes & Walkmen show at the Greek Theatre on Sept 14 that I'll review below, promise–the underground clubs are free to host the new electronica. Beat music. Chillwave. Post-dubstep. Independent music today is more likely to form as a file on a laptop from a sole producer rather than be hammered out on a four track from a five-piece practicing in a garage.
Maybe it's a product of the recession. A lone 21-year old touring with a keyboard, sampler, and microphone makes a bunch more business sense than a 25-piece choir with matching uniforms. Maybe electronic music makes more sense the more we spend our days in constant embrace with our technology. That which is alt hath become mainstream.
That's not to say that indie rock is nearing its retirement. Like any late-adolescent, the genre is just now reaching its stride. Bands like The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes deserve to play on prestigious stages at this point in their careers. And at the Greek Theatre before a crowd that looked close to its capacity of nearly 6,000, both bands were impeccable.
Leithauser's howl during the aforementioned "All Hands" caused a nearby pair of concertgoers who had spent the show sitting to turn to one another and mouth, "Wow." As per their usual, the The Walkmen used the concert to demo unreleased material. The new stuff had people swaying in the garden bowl.
If Fleet Foxes haven't released the album of the year, certainly they can lay claim to writing the song of 2011. The sentiment of "Helplessness Blues" resonates with all who yearn for meaning in their work or, more likely these days, those without work at all. This band gives voice to our time.
My go-to date for the night would've been my brother, but he opted instead to see James Blake DJ at Low End Theory that night. No matter. The sky was as clear as the sound coming from the Greek Theatre's peerless speakers. The temperature was ideal for putting an arm around my sweetheart. And I got to feel the singular feeling of growing old with my favorite band.