Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival once again has a unique American artist to add to its expanding list, in Lambchop. The Nashville band’s central figure, songwriter and singer Kurt Wagner, is touring (a little) with collaborator-pianist Andrew Broder in a series of ‘intimate’ performances that see the fully-worked recorded versions distilled to merely piano and voice.
The duo is preceded by Maggie Rigby – a folk singer-songwriter from Melbourne, Australia, who has a ten-year career under her belt, a sweet voice and seemingly a great many break-up songs that do very well that singer-songwriter thing of expressing heartbreak highly-relateably. Her between-song chat is funny and full of personal anecdote, which tonight’s crowd seem to find charming, and her un-showy guitar playing is pretty and assured.
Kurt Wagner’s between-song windows are few and far between, with his few words of parting thanks really the most direct address, but this is more than compensated for by the length and richness of the pieces, many of them seemingly morphing in new directions and taking interesting turns, and the fact that we get the feeling that with his highly-conversational, half-sung, half-spoken delivery, he’s letting us know what he’s thinking, anyway.
On-stage with his perennially-affixed baseball cap casting a shadow over thick-framed glasses, he intones poetic maxims, wondering expansions and pithy statements. The material is mainly lifted from the second fully-collaborative album he has made with Broder, 2022’s The Bible. But a few songs ring from the past, such as one of his better-known, Up With People, from 2000’s Nixon, with its softly bubbling bass-line, and signature brass line a sung ‘doo-doo-doot-dit’ here. Which is in a way the point about the evening: although it’s often said of ‘unplugged’-style performances, it’s true that stripped-back to voice and piano, the songs take on a more immediate, raw, idiomatic tone, and return to the essence that we assume they had before being arranged, produced, and the vocals vocoder-ed, etc. Atmosphere – found sound or electronic – can be central to Lambchop’s recordings, but finding it is not essential to the effectiveness of their songs can be something of a revelation.
It’s a fair way from the alt-country tag that characterised, not at all accurately as it’s turned out, Lambchop’s career, since their inception in 1986: Broder’s exploratory, expansive piano lies more comfortably between Cecil Taylor and Claude Debussy than say Wilco. His and Wagner’s musical understanding has borne rich fruit in that their collaborations The Bible and Showtunes are among the band’s most highly-praised works, and while Wagner evidently remains the band’s eminence-gris, Broder’s vast sonic vocabulary has taken Lambchop to their most interesting places. His voice, which gets occasional outings, has a sweetness that contrasts with Wagner’s soft baritone mumble, which on rare occasion he momentarily unleashes in an anguished high-point, before sitting back down again.
You’re touched and amused by his trademark prosaic observational lyrical details throughout and the thought occurs that, in the way Stephen Fry once claimed to be envious of those who have the joyous expanse of P G Wodehouse’s stories still to explore, that there are countless Lambchop albums and songs to intrigue the uninitiated.
I was also struck that lyric-sheets remained absent, and that during the extended instrumental passages – which were in turns delicate and thundering, and often highly intricate and complex – Kurt Wagner paced around the stage, air-conducting with his hands before placing them back in pockets, his casual sports jacket remaining on throughout: he appears quite relaxed, and if you wonder what he’s thinking, you’ll know as soon as he ambles back to the mic.
With grateful thanks to the Celtic Connections team for their assistance.