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The Walkmen Live at Cabooze

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In the summer of 2007, I got in a minor dispute with a girl I was dating because I wouldn’t go to a Chicago block party with her to see The Walkmen. I’d already had a long day and didn’t think bailing on that was a big deal. She did. Like all relationship arguments, it was really about something else.

At least part of my frustration, though (I’d say 23 percent), was that it was just The Walkmen. “I didn’t realize you liked them that much,” I said, implying that in the grand scheme of things, I didn’t realize that anyone liked The Walkmen that much—at least not enough to incite a lover’s quarrel—and that as such it was nothing personal. I of all people know not to mess with serious musical affections. Also like all relationship arguments, I was wrong.

Turns out almost nobody has a middling reaction to The Walkmen, and after their new album, Lisbon, helped me understand why, I decided to go join the faithful at Cabooze Friday night, and see if the fuss was really worth it.

As expected, Cabooze was packed wall-to-wall with what one woman described as “a lot of skinny little guys who dress well.” The band members, now into their thirties, are not as skinny as they once were, but time has been good to their live performance. The moody sensation on the records translates pretty cleanly to the stage, and they come off both tight and effortless. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s voice, more importantly, also makes it to the stage without losing much, though something about his face doesn’t match up. Despite his neat appearance and leather jacket, he looked more like he needed a beer than a bottle of wine and some poetry, which definitely cost the band emo points. He almost looks like Nick Swardson.

The real and unexpected star of the show was drummer Matt Barrick (though a little Googling reveals a worshipful drummer community). It’s not just because he resembles a giddy ten-year-old firing away at his set, but because his hyper-kinetics single handedly drive the Walkmen crowd. By the third song, he had Pavloved every soul in the room into bouncing precisely to the hits of his floor tom. More importantly, it was that critical element of the band that can only be experienced live. The energy he supplies just isn’t as palpable on the record.

The set focused mainly on the new Lisbon material, all of which came off well. “Angela Surf City” in particular disappointed nobody. If there was a drawback, it was that the more minimalist new material kept Barrick at bay more often than desired. “The Rat,” on the other hand, lived up to the legend, and proved to be Barrick’s victory lap.

The Walkmen have long had a reputation as a solid live band, and that’s exactly what they are—tight, authentic, and rarely disappointing. Much like their body of studio work proves, they’re too good to dismiss, but if you’re looking for leverage in a relationship dispute, you’re still going to need a bigger crowbar than a Walkmen show.

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