The other great British conversational topic is the weather, and we are dazzled with a ray of sunshine radiating from first support band, and Bella Union label mates of The Walkmen, Treefight For Sunlight. This Danish quartet have been receiving great plaudits of late: a 6 Music single of the week and a Q magazine track of the month for forthcoming single 'Facing The Sun', and deservedly so. Their psychedelic sunshine indiepop comes straight from the school of Teenage Fanclub, with intricate melodies and duelling vocals tripping into delirium and filling a near empty Empire. The multi layered sound was remarkably accomplished for such a new band, contemporaries such as Mew had to develop over albums to achieve the same intricacy.
Watching Treefight For Sunlight transports you into a 1960's TV show, filled with white teeth smiles, bright flashing colours and lava lamp effects, you almost expect canned laughter and a "High honey I'm home" to come through the P.A. In particular single 'Facing The Sun' is the sound of MGMT covering The Monkeys on Sesame Street. Seven songs of pure pop joy, without a tinge of saccharine, and a welcome respite from the trudging grey of London's January streets.
Unfortunately, the drizzling grey skies descend for second support The Head and The Heart. Hailing from Seattle, Washington they seemed to bring the weather with them: Not raining, not too windy, just another mediocre day, and their sole purpose being to woo Radio 2 listeners with inoffensive Americana Folk. Lost between Midlake and Mumford and Sons, this six piece came across as a Hillbilly Scissor Sisters minus the Louis Spence clone. Stage presence was there from the outset, but bounding around the stage, stomping with the drums and singing harmonies into one microphone was just one cliché to many, and was merely to distract from a lack of song writing.
Where there is rain there is often thunder and The Walkmen are an angry Thor hell bent on finding a smoky basement bar and doing his war thing from behind a bottle, but first he needs to get comfortable. Five suited gentlemen meander on stage, trembling under boom lights and a start a melancholic prologue, as if steadying themselves after a night in the drunk tank, before zoning into the battle ahead with 'Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone': A vicious and rarely played track from their 2002 debut album of the same name. Suddenly, the thunder cracks and the barraging snares of 'Angela Surf City' pierce the heart under Hamilton Leithauser's crying vocals of, "...Angela holds a grudge over nothing, Angela, what's the difference?..." It's as if Leithauser has clarified everyone's attitude in his home town of New York, bitterness and indifference, before instigating a musical frenzy to knock the crowd three steps back. A phenomenal start to the show.
Leithauser leads his band of bar room rejects like an office worker with a secret life in Fight Club, his face gnarled with screaming vocals, bruised with melconcholia, yet dressed impeccably throughout. Their set marches as if their touring a greatest hits rather than for their sixth studio album, 'Lisbon'. Newer tracks, like the singalong call to arms of 'Victory', and the discordant waltz of 'Woe Is Me' gel perfectly with the familiar and haunting 'Thinking Of A Dream I Had' and '138th Street'. It's rare to find a band so enthusiastic about their entire catalogue, not just pushing the latest release. One can feel the mutual appreciation in the Shepherds Bush Empire: Many thank yous are delivered between songs while the audience gazes in awe, quiet, respective and waiting to be pummeled by yet another wall of pulsing Hammond wall of noise.
Of course it's the encore everyone is waiting for, 'Little House of Savages' and 'The Rat' are laser guided, precisely, into the sellout audience, in the middle of a four song encore, and cause the first crowd surge of the night. Despite being seven years old it is still these songs which stir the most emotions, and so they should. 'The Rat' being one of Pitchfork's songs of the noughties, and permanently in this reviewer's DJing record Box.
The Walkmen have been on a long journey. From early incarnations in Jonathon Fire Eater and The Recoys they developed their style of Hammond Organ attacks and piercing vocals, but it's still taken them six albums to get to an audience of this size. The relative success of 'The Rat' and 'Little House of Savages' featuring 2004 album 'Bows and Arrows' was followed by a few years of obscurity and critical ignorance, but they managed to persevere with their single minded vision, and hone their epic yet insular sound. With contemporaries The National receiving critical acclaim and arena tours, the path has been set for these men to walk. This gig wasn't the greatest hits tour, nor the obligatory new record tour. It was a showcase to open our eyes to what The Walkmen are due to achieve.
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