The Walkmen’s First NYC Reunion Show Defied The Concept Of Time
For a while there, it really seemed like the Walkmen could be gone forever. Of course, everyone reunites these days, aside from an increasingly tiny handful of bands with uniquely severe rifts. But the Walkmen appeared as if they were content with an R.E.M.-style sunset — go out on a relative high note, let the body of work sit as is. They were busy with other endeavors. As soon as the band dissolved nearly 10 years ago, Hamilton Leithauser, Pete Bauer, and Walt Martin all embarked on solo careers. Matt Barrick played drums for a few different bands; Paul Maroon made instrumental albums and collaborated with people. Naturally, the offers rolled in over the years. But when I spoke to Leithauser last year, he claimed it took the death of his mother to get all five Walkmen in the same room again.
And now, they’re back. Late last year, the band announced some reunion gigs, which unspooled into a few residencies and several festival performances. Last week, the five members took the stage together for the first time since 2014, performing “The Rat” on Colbert. Sunday in Rhode Island, they played their first full reunion show. But last night was the real return. After all these years away, the Walkmen came back to where it started, performing in Manhattan at the start of a sold out five-night run at Webster Hall.
“It’s been a minute,” Leithauser said early in the set, before remarking that the first time they played at Webster, a “tiny band from Baltimore called Beach House” opened for them. “They’ve done well for themselves,” he deadpanned. There was something matter-of-fact about the whole proceeding. The band, who have been going around saying they might not even rehearse for their return, certainly didn’t sound like a decade had passed. They barely even looked different — Bauer’s grown a voluminous beard and Martin’s hair is a bit whiter, but generally you couldn’t really tell that 10 years had gone by. They even dressed pretty much the same.
Of course that’d be the Walkmen’s style. Though their end was met with an outpouring of grief, that too was a sort of random and happenstance event — another thing Leithauser told me was they weren’t really even going to announce a breakup or hiatus, but the whole thing got a bit out of hand thanks to a few interviews. (I, uh, might’ve been a part of that. Sorry.) They’re one of those bands that, after buzzy beginnings, never quite got their due, their full ascension, and in their absence people’s memories seem to have only grown fonder. So even if the Walkmen themselves have maintained a scrappy no-nonsense ethos in this new era, the reunion elicits a proper amount of fanfare. Throughout the show, there were people losing their shit not just to the obvious jams like “The Rat” and “In The New Year” but also latter-day gems like “Juveniles” and “Heaven.” The latter in particular was a powerful set-closing moment, reframed from an erstwhile goodbye to a wistful resurrection anthem, a rare Walkmen “whoa-oh” singalong that felt more earned than ever.
Aside from all the people getting verklempt around me, the show felt less like a momentous occasion than a great band stepping back into business as usual. They looked and sounded fantastic, which is to say they looked and sounded like they did at all the Walkmen shows I remembered from the last few years of their initial run. Any heart-swelling nostalgia was casual, or nearly unspoken. (Also very characteristically Walkmen.) You could hear the joy in Leithauser’s voice when he talked about being back onstage with his best friends, but he wasn’t getting carried away with it.
The songs they played, though, spoke to a past that did suddenly feel jarringly distant. The setlist was light on Lisbon and Heaven; there were plenty of songs from their mid-era pivot You & Me, but a ton of space was dedicated to their first two albums, 2002’s Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone and 2004’s Bows + Arrows. If you spent any time in New York, and if the Walkmen were at all tied to your perception of the city, this was the stuff that felt like time collapsing in on itself.
Fourteen years ago, the first place I lived in New York was a dorm around the corner from Webster. Every time I go back around that area I do the customary “It’s so different” spiel, but even then everything had changed so much from the New York the Walkmen were cataloguing earlier in the decade. “Wake Up” and “Thinking Of A Dream I Had” and “Little House Of Savages” now reach back across several bygone eras for this city and for its music scenes. When Leithauser introduced the band, he noted that they’d assembled from scattered places, from Los Angeles to Sevilla. He alone remains in New York.
Somehow — because of the vitality of their work, or their absence — the Walkmen didn’t appear as a worn echo of those glory days, of their younger selves. Leithauser gave a few poignant nods to their earliest phase, introducing “138th Street” by recalling when the rest of the guys lived uptown and they all got together and played after their day jobs. And then, when the show ended with “We’ve Been Had,” he remembered starting the band way back in 2000. There were just a few moments of appropriate sentimentality, but the tone was slippery. You could imagine a very similar show having happened back in 2014, if they had opted to go the goodbye-tour route.
Perhaps it felt that way because it’s unclear exactly how long we’ll have the Walkmen back with us. The whole thing was they just wanted to play together again; back in December, Leithauser told me there’d been no discussion of new music and he was still prepping a new solo album. The other day, the band posted on social media that they’d signed a real record deal, but who knows, that could just be reissues. It’s hard to predict with this group. You could just as easily imagine them believing that a reunion means a rebirth and not just revisiting the past, or that they could give their history a little acknowledgment this year and once again go their separate ways.
For now, though, we get to see these songs live again: as world-weary and shambling as they ever were, but having collected no dust in the interim decade. For now, there’s just a bit of warmth allowed into the Walkmen’s world, with five old friends reunited onstage. “We’re the Walkmen,” Leithauser said before “We’ve Been Had.” “It’s good to be here.” For now, that’s enough.