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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Walkmen @ U.S. Cellular Connection Stage

June 29, 2012

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Summerfest can be unkind to indie bands, as the nuances associated with the genre are often swallowed up by cavernous stages and unforgiving sound systems (as well as audiences). At first glance, The Walkmen did not seem like a good fit for the Big Gig, as their latest material, including their recently released Heaven, moves away from the anthemic songs that marked the group's earlier output toward a more subtle and mature sound. Nor did the band look ready to rock any sort of outdoor music festival: With their suit jackets and button-up shirts, the group looked more like a wedding band finishing up at a late-night after-party.

Yet looks can be deceiving, as The Walkmen delivered an inspiring performance that left the audience, itself a curious mix of young hipsters, older music aficionados and teenage girls, enthralled. The looseness and upbeat quality of the group's newest songs worked to the band's advantage, as songs such as "Heaven" and "The Love You Love" sounded positively U2-esque as they rang out across the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage. The band was also smart enough to dust off such crowd pleasers as "In the New Year," from 2008's You & Me, and "The Rat," from the band's 2004 breakthrough album, Bows Arrows. Both of these songs showcased the playing of Paul Maroon, who has rather quietly become one of the most innovative guitarists in rock 'n' roll. At his best, Maroon is able to blend the bombastic qualities of the Edge's signature work with a more introspective, somber tone.

Yet 10 years after the release of the band's first album, the powerful vocals of Hamilton Leithauser remain the most compelling component of the group's sound. Throughout the band's hour-long set, Leithauser emitted a casual magnetism that added to the band's onstage appeal. In a scene full of shoe-gazers and mumblers, Leithauser's confident delivery allows The Walkmen to transcend the limitations that often mark underground music. This confidence took center stage as the band played such softer material as "The Witch" and "138th Street," two songs that would have gone nowhere without Leithauser's charismatic delivery.

Like many of the group's songs, "138th Street" addresses the issues associated with growing up and what it means to be a man in the early 21st century. Unlike many of their peers, The Walkmen don't shy away from displaying a certain type of masculinity, one that impacts the band's lyrical and musical output. And while this masculinity used to revel in drunkenness and chaotic relationships, it is now rooted in the power of family, domesticity and memory. "Our children will always hear," Leithauser sings in "Heaven," "romantic tales of distant years."  Growing old never sounded so good.