New York – For his solo debut since The Walkmen’s indefinite hiatus, Hamilton Leithauser delivered a series of performance to a cadre of fans this week at Joe’s Pub. Depending on what gods you worship, what happened on stage that night was divine rock.
Joe’s Pub takes its name from Joseph Papp, the theatrical producer who created the New York Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare in the Park and the founder of the Public Theater.
Waiting for a time in the lobby of The Public Theatre feels like standing in Grand Central’s great hall, if the transit hub served a fine arts clientele rather than commuters. As audience members cycled through the lobby Tuesday evening, during intermission from the current theater production (The Library), our small party caught sight of some celebrities (!!!). With Jon Hamm and Heather Graham among them, the men and women in our party collectively swooned.
For longtime fans of The Walkmen, the setting read like a gentle indoctrination into the glittery world of dad rock. A quietness and reverence was the collective demeanor of the crowd, and a mutual sense of awe permeated the Pub.
The setting was, in a word, graduated. The younger set in attendance may have been thinking, “I’m too young for this” (read: “standing in puddles of beer does not yet trouble me”). Yet, with champagne flutes sparking against candle-lit café tables, amidst booths drenched in rich velvet, not a soul could earnestly protect the lux ambience.
Leithauser’s forthcoming solo debut is Black Hours, scheduled for release on June 3rd via Ribbon Music. Leithauser had more than a little help from his friends for the making of this record and collaborators for Black Hours include Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, Paul Maroon of The Walkmen, Morgan Henderson of Fleet Foxes and The Shins’ Richard Swift.
Hamilton took the stage around 9:40pm and for a solo debut the stage was anything but solitary. For his live set, Leithauser is joined by Maroon on guitar, Henderson on bass and Nick Stumpf on drums. With a string quartet to his right, percussion and a standing base downstage, a pianist, a pair of wind instruments and backup guitar to his left, the setup looked like a frontline heavily-outfitted for battle.
“Behind every great man there’s a woman,” is not a phrase I’d typically employ; however, in this instance it is the literal truth. Leithauser’s wife stood behind him for the duration of the performance, lending backup vocals to the arrangements. Anna Stumpf’s presence onstage was an intimate backdrop for the show, and a rare glimpse into the lyrical narrative that inspires Leithauser’s latest work.
Thematically, the takeaway from Leithauser’s set could easily be misconstrued. With titles that range from “I Retired,” to “Self Pity” and “I Don’t Need Anyone,” one might logically conclude Leithauser mourns his Walkmen days on Black Hours. Yet, in an interview with Metro Leithauser insists this was never his intention. “It would be easy to read into that,” he says, “I mean I wrote a song like, ‘I Don’t Need Anyone,’ but that’s supposed to be a love song. I can see how that would easily translate into that story, but that’s not where it comes from.”
The performance itself was anything but effortless. Showcasing for the first time all new material, the yet-to-be-released tracks were powerful and charged with emotion. “Alexandra” was our first preview of Black Hours, and performed live it exploded in impossibly more dynamism than its recorded counterpart. “The Silent Orchestra” was ethereal and an evident standout, as was “Saint Mary’s Country.”
With so much veneration floating around the Pub, the audience longed for an encore. Leithauser did not disappoint fans, and returned to perform “Bless Your Heart” followed by “I Don’t Need Anyone.” Finally, he sent us out into the snowy night (it’s April, why?) with “In Our Time (I’ll Always Love You).”
The potential casualty on everyone’s mind, to which we feared Leithauser might fall prey, was an overreliance on The Walkmen’s signature sound. Of course, as the former front man of the DC-bread band, a certain amount of familiarity is simply unavoidable. However, Leithauser has curated soundscapes all his own and they are undeniably and singularly distinctive.
Although Leithauser has canceled almost all of his US-scheduled tour, he has kept his June dates. He will play with Ray LaMontage between June 18th and the 27th across the nation. Super fans would be wise to buy tickets early as Leithauser is in high demand, and for good reason.
Photo credit, live shot: Kevin Yatarola, Public Theater
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