By Maura McAndrew | 30 April 2012
When I wrote about Lambchop’s excellent new record Mr. M in February, I noted that like much of the band’s work, it rewards patience: the more one listens, the more accessible and charming it becomes, opening up and revealing the guts beneath the placid surface. In my excitement at seeing them live for the first time, however, I somehow buried this observation, expecting a less delayed kind of gratification. What I found is that Lambchop makes you work for it. But that it is an otherworldly, spellbinding delicacy; a slow buildup of melodies, phrases and tics, that tend to blossom into obsession. Now fully converted, I’ve got it bad.
This kind of hard-won dedication was written on the faces in the crowd at Club Café Saturday night—those dedicated scholars of the band, bespectacled thirtysomethings nodding encouragingly as Kurt Wagner and co. crept onto the stage. There I was, uninitiated, nervously shifting in the front of the living room-like venue as the band played through Mr. M for a solid, quiet hour. Wagner—in standard Wagner regalia (feed co-op cap, thick glasses)—was seated as usual, shuffling through his manila folder of lyrics, never pausing to speak, so quiet that we strained to hear those syllables that always seem to retreat so quickly back into his throat. Those of us standing seemed to keep stock-still throughout, riveted but also worrying our fingers, trying to figure out if we were having fun or not.
Starting off with Mr. M‘s best cut, “If Not I’ll Just Die,” the band ventured into ever-more lengthy and somber territory. By the time they followed “Gar” with “Mr. Met,” I started to fear this would be one of those meticulously navigated sets of only-new material, presented without comment, fans abandoned confused into the night. The mood in the room was getting restless, so much so that when they band got to “Buttons” about an hour in, a gale of group laughter broke out at Wagner’s wry lyrics “I used to know your girlfriend / Back when you used to have a girlfriend.” (Not even funny, really, but cathartic like laughing in church.) Finally cracking his generous, crooked smile, just before the gorgeous “Never My Love,” Wagner spoke, his Tennessee drawl as anticipated and satisfying as Garbo’s rich alto in Anna Christie.
He thanked us for making it through “some difficult and unfamiliar material,” and we were so relieved that Kurt and the boys were really present after all, ready to stick around and cut loose, that we chuckled heartily as inimitable keyboardist Tony Crow rambled on about highways and Hendrix and the provenance of Siamese twins Chang and Eng. It was their first time ever in Pittsburgh, and the band seemed genuinely surprised by the good turnout, firing off the usual Pittsburgh sports jokes. Wagner seemed interested that most of the audience was drinking: “I’d have a drink, too, but I’d pee all over myself up here.”
The atmosphere in the room changed with this, and the show became not just about beautiful songs but about a lively communal experience which, like everything Lambchop does, was made all the sweeter by its initial perceived impossibility. The band launched into older material including “Caterpillar” and “My Blue Wave” from Is a Woman (2002) and after “Soaky in the Pooper” (one of Wagner’s darkest, strangest compositions from way back), they concluded the set proper, Wagner returning to the subject of his bladder: “I’m gonna go whiz, and then I’ll come back and play some more,” and thus he hustled his way straight through the crowd, human and mobile after all.
Wagner’s return signaled the band’s most relaxed incarnation yet, as they launched into “The Saturday Option” from What Another Man Spills (1998), then coyly answered an audience member’s shout for “Up with People”: “We don’t usually do this, but…” It was the only possible singalong song of the night, with peppy “do-do-dos” standing in for Nixon‘s (2000) brass.
The band achieved a masterful momentum in this encore set, allowing the surprisingly raucous closer of “Give It” merged with Taking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” to feel organic. Putting aside his guitar, Wagner rocked on his bench like a raving street corner preacher, gesticulating to match the raspy dynamics of his voice. On the second verse, he stood up, dorky in dad jeans and cow cap, and when Kurt Wagner stands up, when he finally starts to move, he looks like a man miraculously healed, jabbing his mic stand into the crowd and walking it around like a cane. “Same as it…ever…was.”
A Lambchop show is a curious thing—a journey, one could say, from alienation to religion. It all goes back to this sense that Wagner and his band are content to take their time, that, as I observed in my review of Mr. M, they don’t need people to like them right away. It comes off less like a strategy than their only possible way of being. But as always, those who stick with them are rewarded handsomely for their patience. In the spirit of the refrain heard on Mr. M’s lovely “Kind Of”: “It’s not how much you make / But what you earn.”