Show Review: Lambchop and Theodore at Off Broadway, Friday, January 23, 2009

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Outside on the Off Broadway smoking patio, the whole hope thing was getting out of hand. "Do you have any joints?" some random dude inquired as I huddled next to the propane heater. "Joints? Plural?" I replied. "Would you settle for a three-day-old roach?" He wasn't settling. "Do you think they'll play, 'Soaky in the Pooper'?" someone else asked. One could only hope. It was the first Lambchop show in St. Louis in a decade; spirits were plainly high.

With a recession ticket price of $10, the night club was full, not sold out, but easily pushing 150, the kind of attentive but not reverent crowd Nashville's legendary freak-chamber-country collective deserves. "We don't get this kind of turn out in Nashville," lead Lambchopper Kurt Wagner said, seeming genuinely moved by the evening. But lest we wax too sentimental, a Kid Rock stand-in did crow "Fuck yeah" from the dance floor for half the night and the crush at the front of the stage made it impossible for anyone else to glimpse Wagner, who remained seated all night--only once nearly rising from the chair as the last song of the encore built around him.

The evening began with a lovely, focused set from St. Louis's Theodore, a four piece post-modern folk group who improve in bounds with every show. Opening with a spacy and fragile version of "Down in the Valley," strummed lightly on autoharp by Justin Kinkel-Schuster, the band held the room to a hush through a suite of songs from Defeated, TN and their first album, Songs For the Weary. They bowed bass, banjo and saw, and warped and bent lap steel and harmonica through their pedals, evoking a Southern séance with old, weird Missouri twang, bleating on junk trumpets when you least expected it. The band covered Karen Dalton's "Something On Your Mind" (written by Dino Valente of Quicksilver Messenger Service fame) and illustrated an increasing coherence between the pretty quiet and the noisy drone. Their lost-and-found sounds might be enough but Kinkel-Schuster is also writing some extraordinary songs, with fine lines that linger in the air--"I won't be a stranger in my lover's heart" and "Let's cut across the rug like it was new"--and the newest song, "Death's Head" began with murmur and then raged into a final manifesto: "The story is not the way it's told!"

As Kurt Wagner explained in my interview with him in this week's RFT, Lambchop mustered a tour this winter by whittling the band down to a core: three guitars, piano, bass and drums. No woodwinds, no horns, no string section, and no harmony vocals to speak of. But the sound: There's no band that really sounds like Lambchop, even if their Americana aesthetic on an evening like this seems so simple, so conventional. But with the opening chords of "OH (ohio)," the title track of their most recent and most accessible album, it's clear how carefully arranged each part is, how Wagner's melodies quiver and surge, and how the whole feels like a living, pulsing organism. Bass player Matt Swanson was astonishing, playing leads with spidery fingers stretching over octaves, but never overplaying, though the notes came fast and hot. Tony Crow--who brought with him a home town fan base from Blue Springs, Missouri--sat behind a Kurzweil keyboard, finding the right spaces for quick, elegant runs, and drummer Scott Martin kept every song tight, with impeccable stops, starts and stunning, pin-point conclusions.

The set focused principally on OH (ohio), moving through "Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed," "Sharing A Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr.," and "National Talk Like a Pirate Day," as well as a remarkably phrased cover of Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now"--a wise reference to Blood on the Tracks, a sonic and lyric touchstone for this incarnation of the band. In signature engineer's cap, white dress shirt and Coke bottle glasses, Wagner looked as inscrutable as he sounds, though no less than four people mentioned to me the Cat Stevens echoes in his voice. He is one of the greatest of the bad singers, an unassuming master of phrasing, and though you might barely discern a line in the vocal rumble, the way he occludes and reveals can be felt.

The band keyed to his phrasing, with unforced funk rhythms on "What Else Could It Be?" from the classic Nixon album and a spectacular finale of "Give It," Wagner's collaboration with the electronic trio X-Press 2, mashed up with the Talking Heads "Once In a Lifetime." No encore was needed after that fireworks display, but a return allowed Wagner to fill in some gaps from his catalogue, especially the infamous "Soaky in the Pooper," "Up with People," and "Your Fucking Sunny Day" - though it was really our fucking sunny night.
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