Seeing the Walkmen live has the visceral kick of running into an old love and being hit with a wave of uneasy attraction. The fans at the group’s sold-out show downstairs at the Middle East on Friday night looked as if they were experiencing just such a moment, as they directed their attention to the New York City-based quintet with tensed reverence. The band was equally fervent, as it coaxed and attacked the crowd with a lovely yet menacing rock set that reverberated with a thick wash of organ, guitar, and bass under singer Hamilton Leithauser’s desperate-sounding vocals.
The band has perfected its live show by touring steadily since the release of its 2002 debut, “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone.” And in doing so, it has delivered on the early buzz it received after being formed by drummer Matt Barrick, guitarist Paul Maroon, and organist Walter Martin, formerly of celebrated art-punk band Jonathan Fire Eater. The constant touring has also given the band greater poise onstage, particularly Leithauser, who vigorously prowled his domain, pointing at the audience and addressing it as if he were testifying, rather than singing.
The set kicked off with the opener from the Walkmen’s new album, “Bows + Arrows,” the dreamy “What’s In It for Me,” whose gritty core was brightened by churchy organ. Diving into the album’s first single, “The Rat,” a dash of rippling organ fills and loose rattling drums, Leithauser showed off his Tom Waits-meets-Bruce-Springsteen vocals and even resembled The Boss, as his neck veins popped out while he sang.
Even when digging back to the first song they ever wrote, “We’ve Been Had,” the intensity never waned, as they tempered its hint of “Copacabana” dazzle with dark rock moodiness. They built the set’s clamorous edginess to a close with the fiercely swaggering “Little House of Savages.”
Their encore featured a cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Fly Into the Mystery,” made darker and New Wavey, as Leithauser bit down on his vocals over organ and guitar flare-ups. The band took the stage one final time with vehemence, ending “Rue the Day” with a giant blaze of organ.
The night’s dreamy rock tone was set early by the Autumn Rhythm, a local female-fronted trio who delivered a mournful set saturated with jangly guitar and throbbing drums, and the National, a New York City quintet whose hypnotic sound burst with menacing vocals that evoked Nick Cave.