Hamilton Leithauser / Lucy Dacus The Opera House, Toronto ON, February 13

Hamilton Leithauser / Lucy Dacus The Opera House, Toronto ON, February 13
Photo: Stephen McGill
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The first time I saw Lucy Dacus, opening for Car Seat Headrest last September, her performance was plagued by poor sound in the venue. Thankfully, her return to Toronto showcased her powerfully emotive voice — in the vein of Sharon van Etten and Cat Power's Chan Marshall — nicely, and to an adoring crowd of new fans.
 
"I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore," from last year's excellent No Burden, demonstrated her sharp, lyrical wit with a treatise on the role of women in music, with catchy riffs and plenty of her comforting, husky voice for good measure. In a time when the very notion of "indie rock" is undergoing an identity crisis, Dacus seems poised to emerge as one of the scene's best new voices, both musically and lyrically.
 
Hamilton Leithauser, the howling vocalist at the centre of mid-aughts rock maelstrom the Walkmen, deftly transformed into a speakeasy singer on his solo material, largely thanks to the production efforts of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, who has since left the band in favour of a more flexible solo career. Similarly, Batmanglij opted to sit out this tour in promotion of the pair's collaborative album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine.
 
But while Leithauser's distinctive vocals drove much of the album's success, it was Batmanglij's equally distinctive production, with light brushes of textured synths and ethereal background vocals, that crafted a background just as fascinating as the foreground, with plenty of sonic depth to explore. So it was telling that the first voice heard during Leithauser's set was not his own, but Batmanglij's, delivered in a backing track of doo-wop vocals. It made the producer's absence that much more pronounced during the rest of the set, giving an unshakeable feeling that there was something missing.
 
Leithauser's voice is a powerful beast, and watching him perform live is always a treat: he howls at the top of his lungs, contorting his mouth into any shape that will let loose a resonant, throaty bellow. But just as impressive is how his solo material has found him exploring more than the Walkmen's explosive rock, with tracks such as "In a Black Out," with a Leonard Cohen-inspired fingerpicking intro and vocals that rarely reach beyond an exaggerated whisper, and "You Ain't That Young Kid," featuring Bob Dylan-esque harmonica.
 
By adding restraint to his repertoire, Leithauser and his three-piece backing band put on a set that skilfully worked through soul, folk and doo-wop. If not as nuanced as the studio recording, it was still enjoyable.
 
But there was still a pervasive sense of awkwardness throughout the set. While the original venue choice, the legendary Horseshoe Tavern, was the cramped back-of-bar that Leithauser's new throwback persona seemed destined to inhabit, it quickly sold out, leading to a change to the 950-capacity Opera House. An early technical difficulty with the drum kit led to onstage awkwardness met with no engagement from the band, and early-set shouts from a rowdy showgoer riled up the rest of the crowd more than the performers did. Leithauser may sound like a rough-and-tumble troubadour, but the palpable distance between audience and performers shattered the illusion.
 
Luckily, all hesitation melted away with closing number "1959," which brought Dacus back onstage to duet with Leithauser (filling a role played by Angel Deradoorian in the studio). Hearing Dacus' operatic in tandem with Leithauser's gritty yowl was a mesmerizing, powerful display of two of today's most distinct voices. If you count Batmanglij's production, as replicated through another backing track, there were three.