If Friday night's sold-out 9:30 Club show by the Walkmen didn't have much of a palpable sense of occasion about it, perhaps it's because these guys are just too head-down professional to allow any giddiness to creep in. Never mind that this was to be their final gig of a successful year; never mind that it was a sort of homecoming, to boot: Four-fifths of the Brooklyn group grew up together here in Washington.
Though absent sentimentality, it was a captivating evening of jaundiced, grandly put millennial indie sulk (with a some 1950s Sun Records DNA), of which the band retained complete control from the moment it kicked the party off with a booty-quaker called - er, "While I Shovel the Snow." It comes next to last on this year's confident "Lisbon" album. And it's a waltz. Two of the guys played triangles on it. "Half of my life I've been waking up," goes one line.
With that whisper of a tune, the group compelled the attention of the room and never gave it back. The Walkmen's best trick is the way Matt Barrick's fast-flurrying drums, Paul Maroon's surfing-the-Arctic-Sea guitar and Hamilton Leithauser's wraithlike vocals seem initially to be performing different songs, then fuse together with an immediacy that snaps your head back. The set would find room for two-thirds of "Lisbon," gathering in tempo and volume with the ferocious "Angela Surf City" and "Blue as Your Blood," a number that bridges the band's poles with coal-fired Johnny Cash verses and stratospheric U2 choruses.
Performing in a tweed jacket, trousers and a button-down, frontman Leithauser looks more like an adjunct professor than a rock star, but he's got a voice that shrinks big spaces, and the elusive quality of presence. By the time he brought on a four-piece horn section to lend a bent, regal sway to "Stranded," we'd have happily let him bum us out all night. Later, heavy-footed encores of "The Rat" and "Little House of Savages" reminded everyone that the Walkmen is still an aggressive rock band, but it didn't need 75 minutes of runway to show us that. This outfit is capable of vertical takeoff. It boils at room temperature.