Lambchop, Never Quite Cooking

Friday, September 22, 2006

Kurt Wagner, songwriter and leader of the genre-resistant Nashville collective Lambchop, is an idiosyncratic live performer, seemingly equal parts stage fright and apoplexy. For most of his group's set at the Black Cat on Wednesday night, the stage fright appeared to be winning.

Working through selections from Lambchop's new "Damaged" CD, Wagner remained seated, avoided looking at the audience and appeared pained as he sung, punctuating lines by jerking his head back violently. It was an odd contrast to hear his flat, Cohen-esque vocals, buried as deeply in the mix as they are on Lambchop's records, coming from a man who was sweating and grimacing like Bruce Springsteen.

The baroque, mid-tempo material that Wagner had come to play would be a hard sell in any rock club -- although the ensemble remarkably managed to sound a lot less crowded than they looked onstage. The presence of the Austin-based Tosca String Quartet allowed Wagner and Co. to re-create faithfully the delicate sonic textures of such new songs as "Paperback Bible" and "Fear," but absent any enlightening detail or variation. After an hour of new material, the time would have been just right for Wagner to show us what the Toscas might bring to a few selections from Lambchop's thick back catalogue, but he called it a night after a single encore.

Early in the evening, Wagner became visibly flustered when a well-meaning heckler -- his comically effuse praise very much audible -- drew the performer into reluctant conversation. Wagner had delegated even the small duty of introducing the musicians, so to get him to talk back must have made some lucky fan's night.

The brief exchange seemed to summarize the entire performance: a treat for the previously initiated, but largely inscrutable to everyone else.

-- Chris Klimek

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