all photos: Jeremy Kim, review by: Alan Zilberman
In a relatively short time span, there were two important developments about last Saturday’s Walkmen show at Union Market, and they sent fans in opposite directions. On one hand, bassist/organist Peter Bauer told the Washington Post the band is going on “a pretty extreme hiatus,” which in effect made the Union Market show their penultimate performance (they have one more gig in Philadelphia). But then on Saturday afternoon – the day of the show, mind you – Union Market sent out an email blast with a buried lede: “Bundle up tonight! The Dock 5 venue is outdoors.” We were in the middle of the cold spell last week, so like most fans, an audible “Are you shitting me?” escaped my lips. I didn’t want to stand in the cold for a concert, but damn it, The Walkmen are breaking up (more or less) so I might as well tough it out. Barring some logistical issues, I’m glad I did.
The Dock 5 space is essentially a stage built into the side of a loading dock, with Union Market on the other side. There is plenty of room for a big crowd, and the stage had professional lighting and sound. All the music sounded great, so the only hiccup was the drink lines. I was lucky and managed to snag a beer early because from 8pm onward the lines stretched from Union Market all the way to the dock. Instead of a second beer, I decided stay up front where (hopefully) the crowd would provide some warmth. The venue definitely has potential, but I think planners should save the big-name events for the warmer months.
The garage rock trio Sunwolf began promptly at 8pm. Their 2013 release “Angel Eyes” has a jangly mid-tempo to it, sort of like a Velvet Underground throwback but with more attitude, so I was relieved that they brought more energy to their live show. Maybe it was the cold temperatures, but the band increased the tempo and bounced around with glee. Guitarist Tom Bunnell was genuinely excited to be there, and his enthusiasm was welcome. For all his note-perfect riffs, there were also pleasant moments of rock and roll excess: bassist Rob Tifford accidentally knocked over his microphone twice (the first time he sang from the floor, the second time it was propped up quickly by the venue’s staff). Sunwolf closed with a snarled, propulsive version of their single “Push It,” and the crowd was definitely pumped for The Walkmen to take the stage.
Union Market tweeted that The Walkmen were scheduled to take the stage at 9pm, so I planned accordingly. Imagine my dismay when The Walkmen tweeted that they’re not performing until 10pm: this meant the crowd had to endure a 90 minute DJ-set from Will Eastman. Now Eastman is a fine DJ – he knows how to combine danceable beats with revered pop songs – but a 90 minute set in between bands is atypical, so the crowd got restless. No one wanted to stand in the fucking cold longer than they had to, and after Eastman went through his medley of 90s hip-hop*, his set seemed to veer toward indulgence. By the time he left the stage, the crowd booed. At least the transition between Eastman and The Walkmen was a quick one. They took the stage at 10 after 10pm.
Vocalist Hamilton Leithauser got the crowd’s sympathy by thanking them for how we endured the cold weather, and then he added, “We’re The Walkmen and we’re from right here in Washington, DC.” This was met with enthusiastic applause – in past years, the band tried to distance themselves from their roots – so it felt cathartic to hear them acknowledge them for what will (probably) be their last DC show. They began with “We Can’t Be Beat,” the lead track from their 2012 release “Heaven.” From there they played a lot of hits quickly: the titular song “Heaven” was next, and they played “The Rat” fourth (interestingly, Leithauser dedicated that one to his father-in-law). During these opening tracks, something felt off. Two interlocking guitar melodies define “Heaven,” yet they seemed slightly out of sync. Bauer’s organ was distant in the mix, as if it was an echo instead of the band’s main source of atmosphere. Clearly the guys hadn’t played together in a while.
Still, they were to put on a good show and they fought through the kinks to the point where they really connected with the audience. Leithauser is an excellent frontman and singer – he knows how to twist his body so that those high notes contain added power – and drummer Matt Barrick always plays like he’s the indie rock version of The Muppets’ Animal. The second two thirds of their set drew from earlier albums like “Lisbon” and “You & Me.” Highlights were the poppy, guitar-heavy single “Angela Surf City,” and “Dónde Está La Playa.” As the set continued, the band relaxed more and more. The stoic guitarist Paul Maroon even started to move around a bit, flashing a smile and the fans who were trying to goad one. At first it seemed like the band didn’t remember why they played together for so long, and they did, finally, once they got to their last songs.
The Walkmen closed their set with “In the New Year,” and no song could have been more fitting. Before one final chorus, the song has Leithauser crooning, “So it’s all over. It’s all over anyhow.” It was easy to hear the double meaning in the lyrics, and while the band never explicitly mentioned the hiatus, it certainly felt like goodbye. I will miss them, but I’m glad I had this final experience. The cold ultimately was worth it: it only took a few minutes for my toes to warm up, and I suspect I’ll remember this show for years to come.
* Someone yelled “FUCK YOU” at Will Eastman when he switched from “California Love” to M83’s “Midnight City.” I didn’t think it was entirely justified, but when the same guy screamed “FUCK YOU” after the close of Eastman’s set, I couldn’t blame him.