There's a rarified club of white male singers -- think the Righteous Brothers, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Everly Brothers, Elvis. Guys who don't only have a virtuosic voice, but the ability to use it on the heartstrings and the desire to push it to their limits, reaching for the high notes like a tight-wire act. The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser belongs in this club, and he flaunted his membership card onstage at Sasquatch on Sunday afternoon.
During the New York City quintet's hour-long set, the muscles in Leithauser's neck looked permanently on the verge of straining. That's a good thing -- he was giving it his all. He was flexed, his arms cocked in his suit jacket; his entire body was invested in the long, skyward notes he unleashed on the horizon.
His instrument was in fine form. He could go from the tender, intimate moments that define their brand new album, Heaven, to the all-out wails on "In the New Year," from 2008's You & Me. The latter was undoubtedly the set highlight. The four-piece band -- lookin' sharp in suit jackets and button-up shirts -- layered in-and-out bass throbs, melodic key swells and tinny electric guitar. I've seen the Walkmen many times live, but this was their tightest performance yet (did I mention their drummer kills it, too?).
Leithauser tilted his head back, held the mic out front like a '60s Copacabana crooner, and let 'er rip. "The snow is still falling / And I'm almost home / I'll see you uuuuuuuu!!!"
Throughout the performance, I couldn't help but think of Nilsson, who, during the sessions for his 1974 album Pussy Cats, accepted producer John Lennon's challenge to see who could scream louder. They went for it, and Nilsson ruptured a vocal chord, coughing up blood. (Fittingly, the Walkmen released a track-for-track cover of the album in 2006).
I wonder how Leithauser would've fared against these two. Dude's pipes are in that stratosphere. On Sunday, Leithauser pushed his voice up and up and up and up and up. It was suspenseful; you didn't know if he'd make those high notes, but he always did. It was a triumph when the Walkmen closed their set with "The Rat," their 2004 breakout hit from Bows + Arrows. The crowd went wild and I realized that the Walkmen, that Leithauser, had been doing this for more than a decade. I hope the band gets the mainstream credit that always dodged Nilsson. They deserve it.