ACL Review: Hamilton Leithauser
Ex-Walkmen singer’s professionalism edges out intensity
By Libby Webster,
10:00AM, Sat. Oct. 14, 2017
“Wow, wow, wow.” That, scribbled in my notes during Hamilton Leithauser’s howling, isolated vocal performance in “1959” on Friday afternoon, sums up the New Yorker’s powerhouse voice. It’s transformative, spanning Fifties crooning to raspy rock swagger. Even so, such an incredible instrument didn’t yield an incredible live set.
Leithauser and his backing fourpiece, made up entirely of Austin musicians, took the semi-secluded Barton Springs stage just after 3:15pm, opening with buoyant earworm “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up).” After those opening moments, disconnect set in.
The singer spent 14 years fronting indie darlings the Walkmen, which means he knows how to command a stage. It also means he knows how to go through the motions. Thus, his tight professionalism edged out any intensity, replaced instead by restraint. Except for drummer Stephen Patterson, who wore a huge grin and exuded elation with every beat.
Last year’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, Leithauser’s sophomore solo LP and first collaboration with Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij, proved a triumph of songwriting and pop sensibility. Unsurprisingly, Leithauser’s ACL set culled almost exclusively from the album: the harmonica-heavy, gospel-leaning “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” the Righteous Brothers-channeling “1959,” and the supremely depressing narrative through a carnival-esque “The Bride’s Dad.” Thundering vocal harmonies on “Sick as a Dog” marked a high point.
Leithauser also worked in the just-dropped Rat Pack throwback “Heartstruck (Wild Hunger),” a duet with Angel Olsen sans her actual self despite the fact she’s an ACL Fest 2017 attraction. A chugging, energetic “Alexandra” from his 2014 solo debut Black Hours appeared as well. The latter ran the gamut of genre, but ultimately rang less experimental or thoughtful and thus more inchoate, a clunky concoction of sonics.
As strong as Hamilton Leithauser’s studio work is, his hour at ACL Fest did it a disservice.