Hamilton Leithauser in St. Paul: Event Review

Courtesy of Sarah Howley
Courtesy of Sarah Howley

The Turf Club isn’t very big but it’s clean (thanks to a recent remodeling), and it has character. It’s an old building in the middle of a block lined with buildings on a busy street in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s long, dark and open with a few tables lining either side of a wall that divides the room in the middle. There are framed posters from concerts past that adorn the wall on the left and a long bar that spans the right side, nearly the entire length of the venue, from the door to the stage. Last Saturday, Hamilton Leithauser owned that stage.

In case you’ve never seen the former Walkmen front man, he’s a handsome dude. He looks athletic; he’s tall and he has exceptional hair. Women think he’s hot and fellas want to be him—something that was clear with all the female fawning and bromance going on among the flannel clad, sweater and stocking cap wearing demographic packed into the Turf on the 17th. In case you’ve never heard him sing, he sings hard. He pushes his voice to the point where one might wonder when it’s going to give out—at one point my friend, Jake, expressed concern for his chords. But that’s just his style and it always has been—which makes me think: why doesn’t he write more songs to accommodate vocal longevity? Regardless, again, pushing vocal limits and belting out songs with a ton of passion is his style and his fans dig it.

He and his three-member band opened with a poppy song I’ve never heard before. My friend, Barry, thought it sounded like he was singing over a Franz Ferdinand tune. After that he rattled off five tracks from his solo debut, Black Hours: “11 O’Clock Friday Night,” “I Don’t Need Anyone,” “Alexandra,” “I Retired” and “5 AM.” While singing “Friday Night” Hamilton belted out the refrain, “You and me and everybody else” and that’s what it felt like. It was him, us, and the rest of the world, somewhere else. It felt like a room full of friends gathered to spend time with someone they love and hadn’t seen in a while. Before “I Don’t Need Anyone” he shed his beautiful, beat up Fender Telecaster and just rocked. The refrain was sung with authority, “Don’t know why I need you / I don’t need anyone / I’m the last man runnin’.” The eye contact throughout the song emphasized who was in charge—Mr. Leithauser. “Alexandra” was the fun romp we all expected. And after “Alexandra,” there was a nice, slow build and more convincing vocals during “I Retired.” The highlight of my night, as well as others (based on crowd reaction) was “5 AM,” the lead track on Black Hours. It’s a vocal showcase full of honest, earnest lyrics. Quite simply, he sang the hell out of it from start to finish ending with the line, “Nothing taken, nothing spent / They’ll thank me in the end.” To which a guy in the crowd replied, “Yeah we will!”

From there he and guitarist Paul Maroon (of Walkmen fame) had what I’ll call, Ham & Paul Hour. The two long time friends and collaborators performed sweet songs and drinking tunes to a silent, nearly max capacity crowd. Hamilton had talked about making a Sinatra-like album with Black Hours and it felt like he was channeling Ol’ Blue Eyes during the mid-show crooning session. It was an unexpected twist and answered one of my primary questions—since some of the songs on Black Hours would be very difficult to recreate live (because they require 10 more musicians than he has with him on tour), would he have enough material to play a full set? The handful of songs he played with Maroon filled the void nicely.

After the Ham & Paul Hour concluded, he got back into Black Hours material with “The Smallest Splinter.” One of the things I really love about Leithauser is his ability to sing an honest story in a believable way. Throughout “Smallest Splinter,” he pleads with lines like: “Give me a kiss and tell me I’m alright.” And, “Give me the lion’s share of your love.” It’s a beautiful, simple song that translated well to the stage. He followed with crowd pleaser, “Room For Forgiveness,” and a new jam that was sweet and powerful. He and his three piece (the drummer was awesome, by the way) wrapped up the evening with a song that has yet to be released, “I’ll Never Love Again.” It was the perfect song to end a great set. The song goes for broke and stops on a dime. Maroon provides the rock and roll; Hamilton’s lyrics and his Gibson acoustic provide the heart. The band was done, but the two former Walkmen came back to play one more song (my favorite of the Ham & Paul Hour) about a gal named Annie. It had a “Delia’s Gone” vibe to it. It made me think of Johnny Cash and that’s never a bad thing. With that, the show was over and Hamilton stayed on stage for a minute to shake the hands of a few midwestern fans.

After the concert, I saw Hamilton at a table, drinking a beer with his kickass drummer and a few other people. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation, but I felt like I needed to at least shake his hand. So I walked over, told the drummer he rocked and then shook Hamilton’s hand. I said, “Thank you for your gift.” He said, “Thanks, man. Glad you enjoyed it.” And I walked away. I wanted to say more but I also wanted to leave the guy alone to decompress with a nightcap and a few friends. I still have questions for Hamilton but felt good about what he’d given to us—I think most people in attendance appreciated his effort and headed out into the Minnesota cold feeling satisfied. And I was happy to have thanked him in the end.

I’d recommend checking him out if you live in or near one of the cities he’s playing in: tonight he’ll be at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, Canada, tomorrow in Montreal, the 23rd in Washington DC, the 24th at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, PA and the 30th at the Bowery in NYC.