by Robert Steiner
No artist in the history of music has ever stood backstage, moments before appearing to a packed audience of adoring fans, and thought to themselves, “You know what? I hope this show doesn’t go well. Sub-par at best. After all, who doesn’t love a confidence-killing shakeup once in awhile, right?” That has never happened, and it probably won’t ever happen as long as humans have the capacity to possess ego and experience shame – and when it comes to musicians, ego will at least be alive and well.
Point is, every performer hopes for a good, smooth show, but no matter how much practice and heart you put in, sometimes there are forces you just can’t control that threaten to throw the whole night off-course. Hamilton Leithauser seemed to experience such forces at the Royale, but we’re not talking a broken string here or a loose cable there – this guy had the whole ringer thrown at him in the span of a 15-song set. Thankfully, like the cool, veteran frontman that he is, Leithauser didn’t miss a beat and made for a memorable night of old-fashioned pop rock and soaring vocal melodies.
Speaking of the latter, any fan of Leithauser and his many projects of the years, from the Walkmen to his solo work to his recent inspired collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij, will tell you that the greatest thing about him is by far and away his vocals. With a range that can go from a raspy croon to a vein-popping belt in the course of a single song, Leithauser has mastered a style that confidently walks the line between early ‘60s cabaret singer and foam-mouthed punk screamer. Add that to the fact he can passionately belt it out until his neck veins bulge night after night, and it’s easy to call Leithauser one of the best singers working today. So it’s a sacrilegious travesty that his vocal mic wasn’t working for the first two songs.
I don’t blame Leithauser or his band for this mishap; they otherwise-flawlessly played openers ‘The Morning Stars’ and ‘Alexandra’ with contagious energy. A technical issue like that falls on the venue’s sound guys, who shouldn’t have let the lead singer’s vocal mic go dead for two whole songs. Leithauser’s guitarist eventually gave him his mic, which was working perfectly, and the singer looked understandably annoyed but shrugged off the mishap quickly and gracefully. To quote the man himself, “It’s amateur night, I guess.”
It’s good the first road bump didn’t throw Leithauser off his game, because there were plenty more as the night went on. First, his guitar strap fell off, then it straight-up ripped a few songs later, and then the strap he replaced it with came loose a few songs after that. His guitar’s loose input jack might have been the main culprit for these issues, causing it to pop and crackle every so often along with messing with the strap’s grip. These misfortunes might seem small, but any performer can tell you that little technical problems like these are enough to knock more fragile souls right on their asses. Have all of them happen to you in one set, and it can be nerve shattering.
But, like I mentioned before, these vexes didn’t phase Leithauser or his band in the slightest, as they still powered through every song with passion and exuberance. ‘Sick as a Dog’ bounced along with a melancholy groove that slowly built to the final act, which had the whole audience cathartically screaming along by the end. Crowd-favorite ‘A 1000 Times’ had the singer wailing away until he broke a sweat, which was immediately followed by the runaway hit from his Rostam team-up (thanks, Apple) ‘In A Blackout.’ It was one of the best songs off Leithauser and Rostam’s I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, if not one of the best songs of Leithauser’s career, so to hear it played and sung with the kind of raw, unbridled emotion you can only experience live, I instantly felt goose bumps.
As what has become customary at Hamilton’s shows, the band brought on a female guest vocalist for a couple songs, this time featuring opening act Courtney Marie Andrews. She and Leithauser traded lines on the tear-jerking I Had A Dream ballad ‘1959’ as well as his newest release ‘Heartstruck (Wild Hunger),’ with Andrews filling in excellently for Angel Olson. Aside from the latter song, ‘Alexandra,’ and a couple encore songs, the rest of the set was made out of tracks from I Had A Dream, which makes sense considering that it’s both Leithauser’s most recent and arguably strongest work to date. Personally, I was holding out a sliver of hope that some Walkmen songs would appear in the set – they were my very first concert way back in 2011, so call me sentimental – but it makes sense that Leithauser would rather focus on the current, wildly successful chapter in his career.
I would have honestly loved to hear the band play into the absurdly late hours of the night, but we all had to be out of there by 9:30 to make way for the DJ set afterward (or, as Leithauser put it, “The teenagers in their Maseratis are gonna party next!”) The frontman capped off the night with a tranquil solo cover of Palace Music’s ‘Trudy Dies,’ and with that, the crowd wandered out into the still-early night to make way for the Maseratis coming around the block. It wasn’t the smoothest show in the world tech-wise, but the mark of a good performer isn’t hoping and praying nothing bad will happen. It’s keeping it together and pulling through when something inevitably does happen, and Hamilton Leithauser did just that. I left the venue with the delicate picking of ‘In A Blackout’ pattering in my head, and there really was no better song to accompany the cold, young night than that.