It’s a singer’s worst nightmare. Hamilton Leithauser is opening his mouth and nothing is coming out.
At Boston nightclub Royale, the 39-year old indie rock journeyman is on stage belting out “The Morning Stars.” It’s a apropos set opener, the song’s shuffling backbeat punctuated by whipcrack drums, a wailing organ, and a cowboy-tinged steel guitar— a fortuitous patchwork of genres that’s not quite rock, country, blues, or folk, yet somehow an arresting sum of all of them. Like the rest of 2016’s excellent I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, it all swirls around the uncanny centrifuge that is Leithauser’s voice.
Except not tonight. Eyebrows raise, elbows cross, and several patrons grouse openly about how undercooked the performance sounds. It’s all going horribly, irrevocably wrong until a few of us point our index fingers into the air in a frantic unison that every sound guy understands: turn up the vocals. It takes one more song (a completely wasted barn burner “Alexandra”) before Leithauser gets what he desperately needs; a microphone that is actually working.
Somewhere above, an engineer is wilting in his chair, but Leithauser seems roguishly unperturbed. “I always had this dream about being heard” he jokes to the room he’s nearly lost. Then he launches into “Sick As ADog” and the entire hall is filled with one resounding cheer of relief —there it is. That devilish baritone whose almighty timbre nearly shakes the rafters. Leithauser doesn’t lose a moment of our attention for the rest of the night.
. . .
Listening to Hamilton Letihauser attack a melody is like hearing a power saw slice through rusty sheet metal while dipped in butter — piercing, sonorous, and awe-inspiring. Going back nearly twenty years to his days fronting NYC post-punk stalwarts The Walkmen, Leithauser’s vocals have been the centerpiece of whatever sounds are built around it, a fulcrum of swooning croons and craggy, throat-rending falsettos that treads between the splendid and ruinous.
On stage tonight, he’s his usual handsome self — well-blazered, affable, and strikingly tall (6′ 4″ at least) — but it’s simply not the kind of body you’d think a voice like this would come out of. Come to think of it, I can’t think of anybody I’d expect this voice would come out of.
“I use the same voice/ I’ve always had” goes the chorus to “Sick As A Dog,” and old fans shout along giddily, celebrating Leithauser’s longevity and sense of renewal. Many of his solo songs are stoutly self-referential. “I Retired” from 2014’s Black Hours was a chugging, doo-wop inflected rocker that hinted at the Walkmen’s dissolution. “The Bride’s Dad” is a first person narrative sung from the perspective of an unwanted orator at a wedding Leithauser attended in upstate New York. Over chipped teeth, a grey beard, and yellow-stained linen vest, an ostracized father delivers a drunken reception toast to his mortified daughter.
“For years and years, I disappeared/ But tonight I’m here and giving my best/…Your mother left, she’s not impressed.” It’s by turns tender and boisterous. Twinkling piano gives way to crashing chandelier drums. Leithauser’s words exquisitely capture the scene’s awkward whimsy, but his straining voice imparts its urgency. You can see the gin blossoms up close, feel the wedding guests squirm in their seats, and literally yearn for a deadbeat dad’s last chance at redemption.
A sense of longing (mostly unrequited) pervades Leithauser’s words, both tonight and on record. The lyric “If the man that you knew/ Honestly wasn’t me/ Tell me honey — who could that be?” appears on two different songs from I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. Leithauser spittle-flying delivery transforms crowd favorite “A 1000 Times” from sing-along pathos to heart-stricken plea. His gossamer, finger-plucked arpeggios on “In a Black Out” level a hush on the crowd who sway to visions of nameless towns, lost loves, and friends who’ve lost their minds.
He employs striking visual motifs — fire, smoke, tweed vests, moonbeams — the sort of images that almost impart a bit of magic dust on to these compositions. “Peaceful Morning” is a banjo-flecked, gospel ode to pulchritudinous sensory delights: “Ice water smacking kisses, sour lemon mouthfuls/ Of black hours, seersucker/ Powdered sugar moon glow.” New single “Heartstruck (Wild Hunger)” and “1959″ are duets (on record with Angel’s, Olsen and Deradoorian, respectively) that he performs admirably with opening act Courtney Marie Evans. They collide together on the set list, impossibly and perfectly, a full-throated, country torch song and a mystical, string-laden, Peter Pan-like lullaby that Leithauser’s two daughters, ages 3 and 6, would probably adore.
Leithauser’s magnetic performance makes it easy to overlook that, beginning with a couple of songs on 2014’s Black Hours and all of I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, he got exceedingly lucky. He landed producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), and in doing so, finally found a auditory foil to his immutable pipes. Rostam’s eclectic soundscapes dutifully arrange cavernous drums, harpsichords, piano, celestial choirs, and organs (and more cavernous drums) over just-familiar-enough chord progressions and elusive tempo changes.
They become the sonic bricolage over which Leithauser’s voice spills like bold splashes of paint on canvas, it’s colors enriched by textures beneath. When asked by a friend to explain what he sounds like musically, I find it hard to pinpoint I Had A Dream That Your Were Mine’s ever-expanding appeal. It feels both rustic and sleek, classic and modern — the indie rock star who has found his unlikely home as a refined troubadour.
Fact is, he’s always sounded old. On the Walkmen’s 2004 indie anthem “The Rat,” Leithauser lamented over galvanizing guitars: “When I used to go out/ I would know everyone that I saw/ Now I go out alone/ If I go out at all.” His aging cynicism still abides. “I forgot about that whole thing with Boston shows” he grins knowingly, having cut his teeth as front man of The Recoys in Beantown’s late-90’s music scene. “You gotta get done early to get all the club kids in here” he teases before launching into “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” dedicating it to all the nocturnal 20-somethings who will surely swarm into Royale like locusts after Leithauser’s show finishes at the designated 9:30 p.m. hour.
The harmonica and pedal steel gallop joyfully until a sad bed of minor keys dissolves into a half-time coda of (once again) gorgeously cavernous drums and Leithauser’s final recollection of a failed relationship. “There’s no one to hurt me/ And there’s no one to hurt/ Cause there’s ash in my heart/ Where I used to burn.” It’s poignant, wounded, and agonizingly lovely. “Anybody going to party with the club kids afterwards?” Leithauser asks when the song is done. He chuckles when the only hand that goes up in the room belongs to his band’s 40-something year-old slide guitar player.
Before departing for the night, Leithauser eases into “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up),” which is as close to a mission statement as he’s got. Over slow sha-doobies and a bar room piano, he promises: “You know this ain’t the end/ We would laugh as friends again/ Underneath the pines/ We’ll be singing hallelujah.” It’s all there — perseverance, camaraderie, and a transcendent, almost religious, revival. “Across a crowded room, you’ll hear me howl/ I won’t let up, I don’t let up,” he howls, not letting up. After walking off stage, there’s ovations and exhilaration and an encore that, of course, is incredible, but you already get the point. Leithauser won’t go gentle, or quiet, into any good night.