The 5 Coolest Things About Hamilton Leithauser’s Cafe Carlyle Residency in Manhattan

Hamilton Leithauser likes to defy expectations, which is one reason the singer-songwriter and frontman of The Walkmen began an annual residency at the Cafe Carlyle in 2018. “It used to be just a weird out-of-touch thing that I thought it was kind of a novelty, and now it’s turned into a regular fun thing,” he said following the sold-out March 6 opening night of his sixth year at this posh location in the Hotel Carlyle, which is better known for jazz and cabaret performances. “Now, people look forward to it.”

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They do. This year’s residency, which runs through March 20, is his longest yet, and tickets sell fast. “I did notice that they were putting in extra tables all night which they definitely do not pay me for. I’ll tell you that much,” he said. “The soundman is my buddy now, and he’s like, ‘Oh, look at that,’ and he pointed to where they put down a couple more tables.”

The vibe at Leithauser’s Cafe Carlyle shows is much different than a Walkmen concert or even Leithauser’s solo performances at larger venues. The show is largely acoustic and takes place inside what is arguably New York’s best-known cabaret performance space, and the former home of legendary pianist Bobby Short for almost 50 years.

“Premium” hospitality has been a buzz word in the live industry for a couple years now, and the Cafe Carlyle experience would be practically impossible to transplant to an arena, it’s one classy joint. The maitre d’ — who goes by the name Gogo — the waiters and bartenders are world-class and will pretend they recognize you even if it’s your first time. The cocktails are strong and top-shelf — not a White Claw or PBR in sight; the wine list, ambitious; the menu is filet mignon and poached island salmon; and jackets are required. (Leithauser performed in a black suit jacket, black jeans, white shirt and loosened tie).

All of which means that the crowd is well-dressed, behaved and reverent. No one is shouting requests for “Free Bird” (or even the band’s own signature rave-up “The Rat”), and because the room is small, there’s much less phone filming and brazen texting than is usually found at shows. If that sounds expensive, it is — about the cost of dinner and a Broadway show — but Leithauser inevitably delivers a performance that leaves the crowd feeling richer the experience.

Here are some of the highlights that residency-goers can expect.

1. New Songs!

Leithauser, who last released two albums in 2020, The Loves of Your Life, and Live! At Cafe Carlyle from an earlier residency, performed two new songs on March 6: He opened his set with “What Do I Know,” a song that he said he didn’t think much of when he first wrote it, but had grown to like because he now thought: “I finally found the depth of my soul.” One of the memorable lines: “The kids they got everything wrong, but that’s a story for another song.”

The second was “Fist of Flowers,” which he co-wrote with Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon. Both songs were enthusiastically received by the audience, and after the show, Leithauser said that the highlight of his night “was playing my new songs and having them go over pretty f–king well. I guess that’s what everybody wants to say … but I want to say it, too.”

Leithauser, who called himself “a workaholic,” also volunteered that he’s working hard to finish his new record for a 2024 release. “I need three songs,” he said. “I told Daniel [Glass, the CEO of his label, Glassnote] it would come out last year, and it didn’t. Actually, I told him it would come out the year before, and it didn’t. If it doesn’t come out in 2024 I’ve got a problem.”

2. The Storytelling

If Leithauser tired of writing songs, he’d make a heckuva novelist. Many of his tunes — especially those from The Loves of Your Life — are musical short stories based on actual experiences with vibrant characters and narratives, even when they take an abstract turn. His opening night set included “Isabella,” a song about a permanent party girl; “The Stars of Tomorrow,” about a strange encounter that he and his daughters had with a Polish woman on a Long Island, NY beach; “Ocean Roar,” a tribute to his late friend, the singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Richard Swift; “The Bride’s Dad,” a bittersweet tale of a deadbeat dad drunkenly toasting his daughter after crashing her wedding; and “Here They Come,” about a man avoiding relationship problems by hiding out in a movie theater all day.

In the past, Leithauser told audiences and interviewers that the song was about a friend. At this performance, he said it was autobiographical. Fans of “1,000 Miles” and “In a Blackout,” from his 2016 collaborative album with Rostam Batmanglij, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, were not disappointed, and he ended his set with his abstract realist masterpiece, “The Garbage Men,” in which, “All the playboys dance on the blacktop like a swarm of flies.”

3. The Covers

Deep-cut and left-field covers are always part of Leithauser’s residency shows. In the past, he’s performed songs by Big Thief, Fleet Foxes and Lana Del Rey. On March 6, he broke out Randy Newman’s “Miami” from his 1983 Trouble in Paradise album, played The Pogues’ elegiac “Broad Majestic Shannon” in remembrance of Shane MacGowan, and in what may be the most radical song ever performed at the Cafe Carlyle, performed Royal Trux‘s “Stevie,” which Neil Hagerty wrote about his onetime obsession with the bizarro actor Steven Seagal. (Like the band, Leithauser hails from Washington, D.C.)

4. The Voice

“That’s my calling card,” Leithauser said of his preternatural voice in a 2020 Billboard interview. The high notes he hits have been compared to a howl — but he goes low, too, and in a room like the Cafe Carlyle, where everyone is listening, the nuances of his vocal range are crystal clear.

5. It’s A Family Affair

Leithauser’s band includes his wife Anna Stumpf on keyboards and vocals; also on backing vocals, Lacrisha Brown, who was his daughter’s school teacher.

BONUS: After the show, the action sometimes moves to the legendary Bemelman’s Bar, which is also in the Hotel Carlyle, and it’s not unusual to see Leithauser sharing a cocktail and conversation with frequent Carlyle visitor Bill Murray.

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