Kurt Wagner, Cate Le Bon, James Blackshaw - The Borderline, London 10th September 2008
Every so often London blesses us with a club night that has been intelligently programmed, with three interesting acts that make sense lined up next to each other. Last night’s Club Uncut was one of those rare and highly enjoyable evenings – and one which came with the added bonus of a very joyous and positive atmosphere.
Proceedings were opened by the prodigious guitarist James Blackshaw, a descendent of the Takoma school of playing strongly influenced by the likes of Robbie Basho and John Fahey. Blackshaw’s compositions are dense and long, drawing every ounce of potential from each and every theme or motif. His playing is technically accomplished and impressively dexterous, but his use of open tunings means his music is characterised most by warmth and intimacy. It’s hard to describe exactly what is so satisfying about his performance – he sits legs crossed and performs without much in the way of personality or charisma. The impact comes exclusively from the hypnotic power of his music. What a shame he couldn’t have been given a little more time.
I know very little about Cate Le Bon other that she is a Welsh associate of Gruff Rhys and is currently performing as part of the Neon Neon project. Her first song tonight seemed a little clunky to me – the chords strummed a fraction too heavily and her voice seeming somewhat mannered. She eased into her performance though, and within a couple of songs communicated a personality and musical vocabulary that seemed distinctive and refreshing. Many of the songs seemed to be about murdered animals, but the assured quality of her delivery transported her songs beyond the realms of whimsy.
Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner began his quite wonderful solo set by bellowing what he described as a ‘hogcall’ from within the audience, eventually completing the job from the stage. He then sat down with his guitar and performed a superb rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’. It’s rare to hear a Dylan song covered and forget there was ever a Bob Dylan version – but Wagner inhabited and controlled this song so completely that he made it his own.
The rest of his set consisted entirely of material from the new Lambchop album ‘OH(Ohio)’, the result being a revelatory glimpse at how brilliant that album could have been. With the focus now on his soulful, idiosyncratic guitar playing and unusual vocal phrasing, and with the words once again clearly audible, the songs revealed themselves as humane narratives, full of wit and insight. I found myself once again moved and stirred by the imaginative poetry of this compelling everyman.
Wagner himself was a genial figure on stage – revelling in the comic potential of the solo performance, and again demonstrating himself to be one of the most amiable, gentle and modest of songwriters. ‘I’m not here trying to be like Neil Young breaking away from Crosby, Stills and Nash’ he declared, ‘I’m just trying to become a better person – oh, and the rest of the group are busy with the Silver Jews thing too.’
He may however have been working to a strict contract, employing one bemused audience member to watch an egg timer throughout the whole set to ensure he didn’t extend his allotted time. As a result, the performance was frustratingly brief. Some parts of the audience may well have appreciated a smattering from the back catalogue, although that was clearly not the purpose of this show, and Wagner’s refusal to play ‘a song called Up With People’ was understandable.
He ends with a hoary old country standard ‘I Believe in You’ which may be now be responsible for one of the most straightforwardly romantic moments in my life so far. By his own admission, it’s ‘sappy’ and defiantly ‘uncool’, but it’s also sweet-natured and positive and it’s refreshing that Wagner is unafraid to express the value of good old fashioned human compassion.
My feeling now is that by drifting into ever more tasteful and restrained arrangements, Lambchop as a group has probably exhausted its potential. The band will probably not make a clearer, more articulate statement of dignified minimalism than ‘Is A Woman’ and will definitely not make a record as lush and invigorating as ‘Nixon’. On this evidence, the greater mystery and drama now resides in Wagner as a solo singer-songwriter, although he seems far too humble to pursue this path any time soon.