See Also: Q&A with Kurt Wagner of Lambchop
No one goes to a Lambchop show expecting a circus. Fans know that taking a ride with frontman Kurt Wagner and his crew will be a slow one. But last night at the Fox, the band and the audience seemed downright narcoleptic. No really. Not being metaphorical here. A girl in the crowd actually fell asleep at one point during the band's set.
North Carolina bluegrass act Chatham County Line opened the evening's non-festivities. Four young business-suited men, one resembling 30 Rock's Kenneth the Page, all resembling nice, wholesome boys next door, huddled around a single mike. Instruments employed: Banjo, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar and perfect four-part harmonies. Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers may be dead, but a quartet of their heir apparents ensured they have not been forgotten.
"This is what they call a 'cozy audience,'" mandolinist John Teer said to a crowd of perhaps eighty. Indeed, the Fox Theatre felt downright cold, with enough room near the exits to grow a few rows of corn. Eventually, the band decided to ditch the stage and play in the crowd. Hey, with a turnout this small, they may as well have invited the audience on stage. The whole audience.
Once they joined the crowd, however, the between-acts house music came on over the loudspeakers, effectively drowning out Chatham County Line's performance with jazz standards. Poor guys. They played on anyway. Meanwhile, Lambchop's members walked on stage and began tuning their instruments and arranging mikes. It was like watching three televisions at once with the volume turned up. Complete disharmony. Disgusted, Chatham County Line stopped playing, and the house music played on. A few people even walked out.
That stung a little, considering what was about to happen: Kurt Wagner, making his first appearance in Colorado in over two decades. "Last time I was here, Airplane! was playing in the movie theaters," the 53-year-old singer said between songs, sitting stage right in his cowboy hat and khakis. He resembled Dukes of Hazzard villain Boss Hogg, or a cowboy English professor on sabbatical.
Lambchop had played perhaps the least-ostentatious opening of a show imaginable. You could be forgiven for wondering if the band was even playing, or tuning up to play. It was that low-key. Two keyboardists playing single chords, a drummer not drumming, and Wagner playing so softly that you had to wonder if his acoustic guitar was even miked. The crowd hushed, and the silence was awkward enough that a cough or beer-slurp may well have invoked jaundice-eyed stares from the fans.
The band played mostly songs from Mr. M. "If Not I'll Just Die," "2B2," "Kind Of" took up much of the first thirty minutes. "Gone Tomorrow," the closest thing Lambchop has to a rock tune, was also in the mix. Lush string arrangements and light-tapped percussion define Lambchop's oeuvre. Wagner's gypsy ramblings, more half-spoken poetry than singing, occasionally punctuate what are mostly countryesque vamps that have often been mislabeled "baroque pop." Baroque it may be; pop, it ain't.
Wagner seemed to revel in the silence last night, using it as a control mechanism or an extra bandmember. It was reminiscent of an oft-recalled legend -- that of slowcore founding fathers Galaxie 500 playing its dirges to crowds that shouted "Slower! Quieter!" while the band played tunes at the speed of a stalactite forming. Lambchop seemed similarly gleeful about not rocking out. More than once, I wondered if the sound guy was turning the volume down, or whether the band was just settling into a hushed bliss-out.
When the set finished, the tiny audience did its best to bring Lambchop back for an encore. Wagner and company obliged, playing the Brian Wilson-penned Glen Campbell tune "Guess I'm Dumb" and Lambchop's 1994 anti-hit "Soaky in the Pooper," a song about suicide-by-toilet drowning.
The show was over before midnight. Walking outside was like leaving a movie theater after seeing a Lars von Trier film -- you just endured something intense and not altogether comforting, and have to take a moment to readjust to the normal-speed world around.
Personal Bias: I actually love small crowds at shows.
By the Way: Kurt Wagner is perhaps the single gentlest, nicest musician I have ever interviewed. If good interview manners equaled star status, Lambchop would be selling out Red Rocks.
Random Detail: At the Fox, you're not allowed to walk from the bar into the venue carrying two beers (for concerns over underage drinking, the security guard said), and you're not allowed to walk out of the bar with a plastic cup full of water.
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