For a troupe who once claimed to be “Nashville’s most fucked up band”, Lambchop know how to sprinkle some zen-like calm over a room. It’s Saturday night and the hens and stags are piggy-backing around Temple Bar, but Vicar Street is a safe-house just a few minutes up the road. As they open with ‘Give It’, ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ then ‘2B2’, there’s enough space between the lightly brushed snare drums and lilting pedal steel guitar to pick out the clinking of ice cubes as punters make their way from the bar.
Twenty-odd years after their first album, around 30 musicians have gone through the Lambchop revolving door but the one constant is songwriter Kurt Wagner, an unlikely cult hero with a cryptic take on skewed country and soul. Back in 2000, Wagner was dragging 19 musicians around with him touring Lambchop’s breakthrough album Nixon, whose sweeping arrangements and deadpan poetry nicked the best bits of Nashville country, orchestral pop and soul, and landed the record on most of the top 10 lists that year. The touring group’s been whittled down to six these days, and in Vicar Street we get the backbone of Wagner (as always in beat-up shirt and trucker cap), pianist Tony Crow and Mark Nevers on ambient feedback and electronic production, along with bass, pedal steel guitar and harmonies from Cortney Tidwell.
They stick with Mr M for most of the 90-minute set, their 12th album that meets Nixon and its stripped-down follow-up Is A Woman somewhere in the middle, with Wagner’s restrained finger-picking and craggy croon mapping out his abstract suburban hymns – invoking coffee machines and “wine in the basement” one minute, offering spiky mea culpas the next: “I was the big prick back then,” on ‘Buttons’.
There’s plenty of goodwill for Lambchop but it’s often said they’re no one’s favourite band. The guy heckling at the back blows that idea out of the water: “You’re the greatest band in the whole wide world… ever.” He’s not satisfied with the pristine takes on ‘Betty’s Overture’, ‘Gone Tomorrow’ and ‘My Blue Wave’. He’s roaring ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’ between songs, begging for their 1996 track and not just describing where his own head is at. He even begs for the song again, after Kurt and co indulge him. As the lurching motorik rhythms of the encore ‘Up With People’ kick in, the class clown walks to the stage, arms outstretched, lapping up the crowd’s cheers. He’s bundled out the side door by a burly bouncer though – in Lambchop terms this is the equivalent of the Altamont riot. Nashville’s most fucked up band upstaged by their most fucked-up fan. There’s always one.
Photo: Colm Kelly