On March 22, Bad Sounds’ cameraman and guest contributor Olav Nordli, planned on interviewing Kurt Wagner in Oslo. But due to an unfortunate family emergency, the drummer had to be flown home, and the interview was cancelled. Our journalists and die-hard Lambchop fans still managed a few words with Herr K, and their management so kindly let them review the show old school-style.
So Little, So Much
By Olav Nordli
I am probably the most careful person on the planet. I took earplugs to a Lambchop concert.
Although there hasn’t been much in the band’s recent output to warrant such a precaution, it wasn’t entirely out of place on my first acquaintance with Kurt Wagner and his cohorts, here in Oslo in 1998, when they toured with Calexico and Vic Chesnutt.
Back then, their blend of country and soul frequently broke into a canter and even featured a certain amount of musical embellishment. Ever since, Kurt Wagner has distilled these elements with ever-increasing doses of minimalism, creating a truly unique soundscape dominated by his own mellow, world-weary croon.
Similarly, the Lambchop live experience has grown in serenity with every visit, and tonight they push new limits. The number of people on stage, which in earlier times could run into the teens, is now “merely” seven. And although the latest album Mr. M has strings aplenty, these songs are reduced to their barest minimum in the live setting.
Mr. M is among Lambchop’s finest work to date and is featured almost in its entirety during the first half of the show. Sentimentality and melancholia is rarely far away with Kurt Wagner, and never more so than in these songs – many of which reflect a sense of loss following the death of long-time collaborator and friend Chesnutt.
As Pitchfork recently put it, Wagner’s lyrics combine observations from daily life with poetic flights, transforming the everyday into a mystery. This ambiguous sentimentality is a key ingredient to Lambchop’s appeal, although whenever Wagner drops his baritone to a near-mumble on stage, deciphering the words can be a challenge.
Quiet is more difficult than loud in more ways than one. To avoid sonic interference, patrons who visit Rockefeller’s toilets during the show are encouraged to eschew the blow-dryer in favor of paper towels. The cavernous expanse in front of the stage has been fitted with chairs and tables, and although a centre-front position provides me with a perfect view of the band – also seated in a reticent semi-circle – I lose out on audio balance and quality.
From the right flank, Wagner’s gentle guitar is often inaudible, thus depriving me of the carpet on which many songs are furnished. The collective quietude propagates better from centre stage, including Cortney Tidwell’s fine voice which often assumes the wordless role of an instrument. (Tidwell also performed a solo set as an opener.)
As regular drummer Scott Martin has been called away by family matters, Anders Holm has been recruited as stand-in on a day’s notice. Stage left, he displays assured musicianship in so doing, but you also have to feel a bit sorry for him. His isn’t the easiest instrument to play quietly, and attuning to the Lambchop level of sonic restraint must be a challenge.
Yet, even though the percussive patterns may permeate slightly more than usual, the minimalistic strumming is of such emotive quality that the audience is never less than captivated. Again to quote Pitchfork – it is rare that a band asks you to listen to so little, and much rarer still that they make it sound like so much.
One high-point is the wonderful “Never My Love”, the last of the songs from Mr. M here as it is on the album. This signals a slightly more upbeat mood in the final part of the show, which mixes covers, back-catalogue obscurities and old favourites such as “Up With People”. There is even a few of pianist Tony Crow’s bad jokes.
Almost four years have passed since Lambchop’s previous tour and album, and Kurt Wagner has recently hinted that he may not have that many left in him. The quality of the new songs suggests otherwise, however, and tonight’s performance makes you wish he will never dry up. Quiet won’t be quite the same without him.
Check out Kai’s recommended video-playlist of Lambchop tunes on youtube.