Words by: Cal Roach
The Walkmen/White Rabbits :: 01.19.08 :: High Noon Saloon :: Madison, WI
The Walkmen have been steadily gaining momentum since their 2002 debut album, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. Since then, they've played bigger and bigger festivals, released a song-by-song remake of the John Lennon/Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats album, and contributed to the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack. It may not be the most linear career path, but clearly they're doing something right. Enter White Rabbits, whose 2007 debut, Fort Nightly, garnered rave reviews and whose live set at SXSW 2007 caused a commotion (read JamBase's White Rabbits feature here). What do these bands have in common? Apart from being labeled oh-so-generically as "indie rock," their performance at the High Noon Saloon suggested "energy" as the only discernable answer, and that was plenty of common ground for a great night of music.
White Denim seemed like the perfect opening act, too; another SXSW survivor and, um, very energetic. We could glean that much as we stood outside in minus-10-degree air for the group's entire set. Once inside, the place is a step up in class and size from its predecessor (the revered O'Cayz Corral, which burned down in 2001), but a bit of a step down in character. Still, it's the music that matters, and White Rabbits came out loud and hot. The Rabbits come off much more gleeful and chaotic onstage than on record, and while those pristine three-part harmonies suffer occasionally, the band makes up for it with sheer enthusiasm and presence.
Singer-pianist Stephen Patterson's barely-contained yelp during opener "Kid On My Shoulders" was more fitting than his restrained vocals on the album. The group's echoey, rockabilly-lite guitar that often gets buried in the mix on Fort Nightly was cranked up to "psychobilly" for much of this show. The dual drum attack came across as both powerful and interactive, and the band's perfect symbiosis of guitar and piano propulsion shone brilliantly on the triumphant "While We Go Dancing." Guitarists Greg Roberts and Alex Even showed their own vocal talents to best effect by nailing the soaring harmonies of "I Used To Complain Now I Don't" to end the show. Every song was improved live, and that's all you can ask of any band.
The Walkmen are known for their love of vintage equipment, and there were lots of old-fashioned values in the band's songs and performance. Essentially, they're just a really good rock band with really good songs. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser is a marvel. You won't see another singer in indie rock as fiercely committed to belting it out with all his might and still sticking to the pitch. Elsewhere, he's got a scream that leaps off the stage, everything bolstered by a visual intensity that takes the live experience to the next level.
The group is tightly wound but has enough laidback interludes to keep the Ritalin away. Drummer Matt Barrick puts out more wattage than you might expect, considering the intricacy of his unconventional patterns, but he knows when to really lay into 'em. His galloping beat on "Thinking Of A Dream I Had" built behind the group's guitar-shimmer maelstrom into a prolonged explosion to close the tune. And his scattered but scrupulous march through "Little House Of Savages" kept heads bobbing and twitching while guitarist Paul Maroon suggested what The Edge might sound like if he used a hacksaw rather than a pick. The band swung from balls-out rock to countryish rock to edgy folk rock, all terrific songs executed with passion and precision.
White Rabbits were a tough act to follow, and while The Walkmen may not have topped them, they were impressive in their own right. Both bands played sets that make listening to their records a little less satisfying, which may be an odd measure of success, but it's what keeps us coming back out to the shows.
JamBase | Wisconsin
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