Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Impressive Chops

Lambchop - Union Chapel, London 3/11/2008

I perhaps don’t need to write too extensively about Lambchop’s Union Chapel performance given my earlier comments about Kurt Wagner’s solo gig at Club Uncut last month. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, it has perhaps bolstered the opinions I expressed tentatively in that article. During Lambchop’s career post-‘Nixon’, Wagner’s vocal delivery and performing personality have become ever more compelling and idiosyncratic, whilst the sound of his group has drifted towards the polite and understated. Again, the songs from ‘OH(Ohio)’ (played in its entirety in sequence tonight, interrupted only by a lovely Bob Dylan cover, familiar to anyone who attended the Club Uncut gig) come to more vivid life in live performance, but there remains a sense that the band’s tasteful backing is diminishing rather than supporting their individuality.

Perhaps this is because Lambchop have settled into a more conventional group structure. Where once they benefited from contributions from Pauls Burch and Niehaus on Vibes and Pedal Steel respectively and also had the novelty of two bass players and a baritone saxophonist, they are now a comparatively streamlined seven-piece rock group. Admittedly, this is still a group with a lightness of touch and nuanced understanding of what makes music soulful and moving, but William Tyler’s pretty guitar figures often end up rendering the music less multi-faceted.

Their tranquillity remains deceptive though – and the moments when their coiled intensity unravels provide some of the thrilling highlights of this concert. There’s a sprawling ‘National Talk Like A Pirate Day’ and, perhaps most surprisingly, a barnstorming medley of Wagner’s X-Press 2 collaboration with Talking Heads’ ‘Once in A Lifetime’. Perhaps the latter serves as recognition that David Byrne also collaborated with X-Press 2 on a dance track, or maybe it repays the compliment for his stirring cover of ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’ (which, pleasingly, gets a rare airing towards the end of the set). There’s also a tetchy, irritable version of ‘Up With People’ that closes the main set. Initially, this sounds like Wagner just wants to get it over with – but the additional aggression with which he delivers the words serves as a powerful call to arms on the eve of the US Presidential election. Pianist Tony Crow’s bizarre moments of, erm, ‘sit-down’ comedy suggest that the band, like many other commentators, see this election as an epochal one.

The new songs represent a return to the sound of Lambchop’s earliest albums, so it's perhaps unsurprising to find the few older songs they play tonight revisiting that period. I particularly enjoyed the brisk, energetic take on ‘All Smiles and Mariachi’. The new material once again demonstrates Wagner’s originality and vitality as a lyricist, so it’s pleasing to again be able to discern the words (a real problem with the studio versions). ‘A Hold On You’ and ‘Please Stand’ emerge tonight as the set’s most moving selections.

Wagner ends the set with a gloved fist raised into the air triumphantly, before walking through the Union Chapel’s aisles towards the far exit. He expresses his gratefulness to the audience with transparent sincerity – and one of his many virtues is his ability to build bridges between his group and their listeners. I still wonder whether it might be time for a new phase in his career though.

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