2:55 pm Apr. 20, 2012
Since Levon Helm died yesterday, it only made sense that The Band’s music was playing on the sound system at Le Poisson Rouge last night as the crowd waited at their tables for their dinner with Charlie Horse and Lambchop.
There were a few audible sighs in the crowd as the music played, and at least one exclamation, from a person just being told the news, over the roar of "Ophelia" coming from the speakers. It was perfect introduction to the evening, a mixture of country and not-country, with themes of life and death echoing through it.
Lambchop has described itself as “Nashville’s most fucked-up band,” but their sound isn’t aggressive. It’s constantly evolving (singer Kurt Wagner has been the sole continuous member over 11 albums), and their latest album, Mr. M, is itself a meditation on Wagner’s old lost friend, the late fellow musician Vic Chestnutt.
It’s a combination of the depressed side of country that you find on old Hank Williams records with the cleansing sounds of classical strings and Burt Bacharach. Each lyric on the record feels like a personal embrace, with a special enunciation and meaning that is both personal and universal. Mr. M is a triumph, an early favorite for album of the year, and the excitement in the sold-out crowd was palpable.
The first challenge was trying to find a place to stand. L.P.R. had set up tables in about 80 percent of the floorspace, with standing room near the bar. The views were fine, but for a sold-out show it meant constant bumping-and-apologizing, especially during Charlie Horse’s opening set. If you’re unfamiliar with Charlie Horse, you might know them by their other name, Yo La Tengo.
Locals Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew were all moonlighting, doing hushed, acoustic covers of Times New Viking’s “Move to California” and Sun Ra’s “Dreaming.” This was the set during which the table folks were supposed to eat, but nary a utensil moved. Kaplan declared it the band’s “favorite holiday: Lambchop Comes To New York Day” and eventually received the raucous applause that was coming to them.
Kurt Wagner (dress shirt, jeans, black baseball hat and white hair) and Co. (T-shirts, no sleeves, no hats and long hair) came on stage to a warm electronic fuzz and Kurt’s own quick, quiet ramblings, spoken just enough into the mic to drive the crowd crazy. He finally burst out into the lyric that opens up Mr. M on “If Not I’ll Just Die”: Don’t know what the fuck they talk about, maybe blowing kisses, blowing, which is a classic Lambchop lyric: filled with specificity and mystery, and trailing off before the listener can determine which part is which. Near the end of the song, Wagner almost got out of his chair, his whole body trembling as he sang, I adore you, and I represent your ... and then quickly fell back into his calm demeanor. Wagner’s control over the emotional range of the music would play into the show, again and again.
Lambchop have a certain way of building a show. You can hear it on 2009’s Live at XX Merge and again last night at Le Poisson Rouge: a snowball effect, where they start with the quietest whisper and end with the band at full throttle. Lambchop was smaller here than they’ve been in the past—only five players on stage, and it’s been upwards of eleven in the past—but the range was managed so that the snowball effect was still in force. On the record, “2B2” doesn’t sound that different from its immediate predecessor, “If Not I’ll Just Die,” but in person, played one after another, “2B2” sounded, richer, fuller. And it took the song after that, “The Good Life (is wasted).” to finally get an inflection of country into the affair. A slow build, that showed off a band equal parts jazz trio and Charlie Louvin.
Whatever the lineup’s been, Lambchop and Wagner have always been about the in-betweens, exploiting sonic silences and relating to characters who aren't yet fully formed, even to themselves. Wagner has also been unusually open about his financial difficulties: he’s had trouble acquiring health care, and a recent cancer scare set him back $80,000 he couldn’t afford to lose. So the crowd laughed, albeit uncomfortably, when the band joked that the intended audience of the night was “hundreds of millions of YouTube viewers.” Were they in need of a viral hit?
The evening was never morbid, but the reality of death was a feature of it. A song was played for Dick Clark, and Levon got a mention, as did “everyone up on WhoDiedToday.com.” Wagner, who was at least double the age of his oldest fellow bandmate, was perfectly comfortable with the subject matter; he had after all just put out an album dealing with it.
Perhaps all the death, though, was why he was so insistent that someone in the crowd celebrate a birthday on stage. A woman from the front row jumped from her table and when she got on stage someone got her a drink. Lambchop played a sweet lullaby, one with lyrics that weren’t all decipherable, but the feeling was clear. Lambchop’s no stranger to death, but they’ll be damned if they’re going to be keeling over any time soon.