On the surface, New York quintet the Walkmen and Baltimore duo Beach House don’t seem to have much in common. The Walkmen are dramatic, passionate and consummate showmen, while Beach House is gauzy and narcoleptic, playing at tempos that make Mazzy Starr sound like the Ramones. Yet both make records that are ideally suited to late night listening. The Walkmen’s four albums are a soundtrack for evenings, whether out on the town drinking too much or home reflecting on earlier days. Beach House’s slow moving, blurred Polaroid music is also ideal after dark, but feels more solitary, more like a rundown, rural hotel at night.
The two bands, who played at North Portland’s spacious Wonder Ballroom, made for an excellent bill, attracting the cream of the city’s indie scene, including members of the Decemberists, the Thermals, Quasi and Talkdemonic. After a brief, indifferently received set by an unannounced band (whose name we never learned because the singer mumbled), Beach House took the stage. On record, the band is just Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully. They were joined by a drummer, which gave their ethereal, droned-out songs a little more backbone; the set felt less like individual songs and more like one long, desert soundscape, the center of which were Lybrand’s pretty, ghostly vocals. They’ll never be a band with much stage presence (unless you count gently swaying), but their songs are lovely, swirling, and textured, closing on a high note, with the stately “Heart of Chambers.”
Touring with last year’s excellent You & Me, the Walkmen were playing a bigger venue, more suited to their room filling songs. A curtain provided an appropriate backdrop, as there is something theatrical about them and they have described themselves as playing “melodramatic pop songs.” They drew heavily from the new album, opening with two of the strongest songs, “On the Water” and the surging, optimistic “In the New Year.” After years of heavy touring, the Walkmen have become a consistent, dynamic and galvanizing live acts. I’ve seen them six times and they’ve never been anything less than great. There’s more energy and edge to their songs live and towering vocalist Hamilton Leithauser is a compelling front man who can really belt it out- an unlikely combination of punk and Sinatra, with the shouted energy of the former and the soulful, velvety croon of the latter. He’s not afraid to go over the top and I once saw him sing so hard that he fell over.
They were joined on a number of songs (mostly new ones) by a four-piece horn section, which added a richness and depth to their songs, as well as gave them a classic elegance- a little something like former tour mates Spoon. The Walkmen drew from all of their albums, including favorites like the ringing “We’ve Been Had” and the furious song “The Rat.” They also broke out the little-played “They’re Winning” from their first album, which sounds like the band is coming through a snowstorm. One of their best qualities as a band is their dynamic, balancing the slower songs with faster ones, the quiet ballads against the loud rockers.
The band closed with the best song from 2006′s A Hundred Miles Off, “Louisiana,” and when those buoyant horns kicked in and the energy peaked, it suddenly conjured up images of Vegas showgirls and tuxedoed lounge singers. The Walkmen may never get as big as they deserve, but they never disappoint and remain one of indie rock’s best live bands. Despite their differences, the two bands nicely complemented each other: Beach House was pleasantly lulling and narcotic and the Walkmen were exhilarating and inspiring; one offering a night cap, the other a full bar.
)Photos: Robin Dua)