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Live: Lambchop at McCabe's Guitar Shop

May 7, 2012 |  5:18 am

On a night in which the moon was 14% bigger than usual, in a room the size of a church basement at McCabe's guitar shop in Santa Monica, Kurt Wagner, singer, songwriter, guitarist, visual artist and longtime leader of Nashville country band Lambchop, sang a song called “Nice Without Mercy.”

“We have crawled among the elements taking pictures with our phones,” he crooned, laying bare a curious reality of the modern world in a half-whispered baritone. The rest of his band offered delicate punctuation via piano, guitar, bass, drums and the occasional warm hum of a Nord Electro synthesizer, with a little bit of twang, a touch of pokey blues and a dollop of grace.

The song was taken from Lambchop's exquisite new album, “Mr. M,” and in it, Wagner addressed the natural world, capturing the kind of wonder that could make a believer of most skeptics. After the crawl with his phone, he sang of carrying buckets over mountains, “catching fish with just our hands,” of a sky that “opens up like candy and the wind don't know my name.”

Wagner has been crafting these kinds of gems for 20 years with a band that has at times swelled to more than a dozen players. He and Lambchop perform quiet music whose breadth is only apparent after focused, intentional listening when Wagner's oft-glum delivery becomes normalized in your head and you start to appreciate his phrasing and how he deliberately under-sings and/or mumbles out asides and witty retorts. 

Over 11 studio albums, Lambchop has created a humble but grand repertoire that, were Wagner a more active and charismatic self-promoter, would have earned him a MacArthur grant by now. But to do that he'd likely have to stop singing about men who hunt for empty beer cans behind stadiums and “along the course of the purling rivers” and about a world of struggling souls in which, as he sang on “2B2,” “dogs bark at no one and we do the best we can.”

In the first of two Saturday evening performances at the guitar shop, Lambchop played most of “Mr. M,” which Wagner has dedicated to the memory of a friend, songwriter Vic Chesnutt. On the record, Lambchop augments its songs with sweeping country-politan strings and backing singers. But at McCabe's, the five men created similarly quiet beauty with fewer musicians. Though instrumentally sparser, it was no less overwhelming, in equal parts because of Lambchop's deft touch, the sound mix and the room's acoustics, which were as well tempered as a pro studio after months of sonic tweaking.

On “Betty's Overture,” an instrumental from the new record, Lambchop floated like the best twangy lounge band from 1962, a corner outfit offering a piano and guitar-based melody that suggested a little Chet Atkins miniature with a little Charlie Christian tossed in for fun. And on one of the evening's highlights, “The Good Life (Is Wasted),” the band dug into a rolling groove while ace piano player Tony Crow dotted out perfectly placed counter melodies.

The band closed with two cover songs, the first of which was a single verse from Billy Joe Shaver's grim revenge fantasy, “My Dreams Are All Dead and Buried.” The song lasted less than a minute, and Wagner sang the opening namesake line with typical glumness, then continued on with “sometimes I wish the sun would just explode. When God comes and calls me to his kingdom/ I'll take all you sons of bitches when I go.”

But as Wagner has done throughout his career, he balanced his darker tendencies with a tender romanticism that rendered cynicism powerless. There was, after all, a “super moon” in the sky above. Lambchop's final song, Bob Dylan's “I Threw It All Away” from “Nashville Skyline,” touched on themes Wagner visited throughout the night and his entire artistic life: love, life and the oft-wrongheaded but insatiable appetite for both.


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Photo: Lambchop. Credit: Bill Steber.