LAMBCHOP Live at Teatro Masini, Faenza – 21st June 2013

On the night Lambchop played Faenza, the town’s annual deranged chariot races (“La folle corsa delle bighe”) were taking place in streets nearby.

From footage of previous years’ derangement these look like something out of a Monty Python sketch in which home-made chariots, with occupants dressed in makeshift medieval robes, are pulled by two men to race one another around a short circuit.
I think Kurt Wagner could write a pretty decent song about such orchestrated madness but you could count on the fact that it would be no straight narrative of events. His is another kind of strangeness.

Wagner is uneasy about what he calls “the complications of communication” and his writing mainly has an introspective, indirect and literate character – personal yet full of abstract references. After all, you don’t get many pop tunes urging “C’mon progeny”, a rallying cry that you hear on Up With People from their fifth album Nixon from Y2K.

Lambchop have a solid following in Europe but I get the impression that the band from Nashville are regarded with some suspicion in their homeland. This is probably down to the fact that they are so far removed from anything resembling the traditional Nashville sound.

Tony Crow and Kurt Wagner on stage at Faenza.

Tony Crow and Kurt Wagner on stage at Faenza.

Their music has been described as Countrypolitan, a clever label that explains very little. Their adoption into the fold of other Alt-Country bands also raises misleading expectations.

I suppose Country Soul is a good a description of what they do but the mellow jazzy elements seem increasingly important as the band mature.

Wagner’s open house policy means that Lambchop is more of an ever-changing collective than an identifiable band.

For live shows the line-up has to be trimmed down to a financially viable working unit. They were a six-piece for the show in Faenza : Scott Martin (drums). Tony Crow (piano), Matt Swanson (bass), William Tyler (guitar & keyboards), Wagner (vocals, guitar) and a clarinetist/sax-player whose name I didn’t catch.

The opening track off their latest album, Mr M,, (which is dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt), reflects the record’s mood of sadness and loss. If Not I’ll Just Die is also the first song the band play for this show; Wagner sings with a mixture of dejection and resignation: “And the sky opens up like candy/ And the wind it still don’t know my name”.

Other lines that struck me as emblematic of the band’s unique character were from a much older song (Interrupted) which they closed with: “It is very cold / And with the coldness/ Comes a quiet/ Interrupted by a sound”.

The quietness of Lambchop has become more apparent after the Nixon album. A more career-orientated band would have consolidated the success of that record with others in a similar  vein. Instead, the immediate follow-up, Is A Woman, and now Mr.M, have a much more hushed, muted quality.

Ten of the fifteen songs in the set list at Faenza come from Mr M or Nixon and the four songs from the latter are quite different from the recorded versions. Not only is Wagner now incapable of replicating the falsetto vocals for What Else Could It Be, but the more outward-looking thrust of this and other Nixon songs have been radically adapted to give them a more subdued aspect.

Unfortunately, this kind of melodic understatement doesn’t have such a magical effect in a live setting. The elegant theatre space in Italy is a perfect venue, but the lack of up-tempo tunes meant that each song tended to blend into the next.

Pianist, Tony Crow, attempted to break the spell with some good-natured banter with the more reserved Wagner, but the languid mood overall was mostly soporific and melancholy.

The liveliest piece was saved for the encore, a performance of Fa-Q (see video below). This is an obscure track from 1987 which Wagner introduced, somewhat apologetically, as a protest song. The song may be more than a quarter of a century old but the angry ‘fuck-you’ sentiments still sound very topical.

This was a relaxing and enjoyable concert but a couple more songs with a similar Fa-Q spirit would have replicated some of the energy of the streets outside.

Related link:

More info + download link to Fa-Q at Garbage & Gold Blog