Now here’s an anomaly. I’ve only recently become aware of The Walkabouts, a fairly shabby state of affairs given that they’ve been around since 1984 and that co-founder Carla Torgerson sings the female lead on “Travelling Light”, one of my favourite songs by Tindersticks, one of my favourite groups. Clearly it was time to check these guys out, and the opportunity to do that came along more swiftly than I had expected in the shape of a Vienna date on The Walkabouts’ current European tour.
The interesting thing about The Walkabouts is that they are far more popular in mainland Europe than they are in the UK (and also the USA, which goes without saying), to the extent of not even visiting Britain on this tour. I find this state of affairs baffling, since the group trade in the kind of dusty, rootsy Americana that has become very fashionable in recent years. Not that I’m complaining – it’s good to have the usual situation of artists playing anywhere but Vienna being reversed in my favour for once.
In any event this was a hugely enjoyable concert, played to a full and appreciative Szene audience. These are perfectly formed songs, most of them at least five minutes long and with an epic yet resolutely unfussy quality. Reaching out through incisive melodies and a weighty rhythmic attack, the show was more rocking than I had expected and none the worse for all that. Singer and principal songwriter Chris Eckman is a model of reticence, his unassuming presence key to The Walkabouts’ dramatic stagecraft. His deeply resonant voice gives vivid animation to the American myths and figures of his songs, while his guitar playing has that marvellously ragged Neil Young quality that evokes lost dreams and endless highways all at once.
Reflecting on The Walkabouts’ long history of cult appeal and mainstream indifference, Eckman made a between-songs dedication to “everyone who hung in there”. The song that followed, “The Light Will Stay On”, was one of several with Carla Torgerson on lead vocals. When not playing spidery second guitar and lending heavenly backing to Eckman’s vox, Torgerson sings in rich and lovely tones while making beautifully expressive body movements. Her limbs adrift in gracefully fluid motion, Torgerson is a melancholy counterpart to her partner’s searing agitation. With the immaculate band adding vital light and shade to rockers such as “Jack Candy” and “Grand Theft Auto”, The Walkabouts are an abrasive yet electrifying presence.