ONCE IN A LIFETIME Lambchop

As
documented in a new concert film, Kurt Wagner & Co. transformed  XXMerge into a magical event.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

If you’re lucky, over the course of your concert-going life
you’ll attend a few shows whose legendary status begins before the final note
is even struck. Yet when Lambchop played the five-day festival celebrating Merge
Records’ 20th anniversary in Chapel Hill last July, even diehard
fans would’ve conceded that of the 35 acts playing, Kurt Wagner’s Nashville
outfit probably wouldn’t have topped the list of those most likely to steal the
show.

 

But steal it, they did. Forget everything you thought you
knew about the band beforehand, because Lambchop rocked the roof off of the venerable
Cat’s Cradle that night. And now you can see and hear how they pulled it off because
Merge has released the “digital DVD” Lambchop Live
at XXMerge
, which does a solid job recreating most everything about that magical
night but your buzz.

 

Directed by Matt Boyd and shot in warm color, multiple
cameras capture an 11-member version of Lambchop in peak form during a 45-minute
set that wisely collects the funkiest, most up-tempo numbers from the band’s
two-decade-plus career. The 10-song set-list may have been brief – there were
six bands on that night’s bill – but it packed more energy than most shows
twice that length. That set-list tilted toward the band’s best-loved records —
2000’s incomparable Nixon (three
songs) and 1997’s Thriller (two
songs), as well two more taken from Wagner’s latest off-kilter opus, 2008’s OH (Ohio) – but all 10 hit their mark
that special night.

 

The opening number, then, comes off as more ice-breaker than
mood-setter; “I Will Drive Slowly,” from the band’s 1994 debut, I Hope You’re Sitting Down, unfurls elegantly
as the cast establishes a rich tableau of textures – three distinct keyboards,
a reed and horn section, and three guitars — to accompany Wagner’s simple love
song. The gentle pace suggests the typical laid-back Lambchop gig of recent
years (remember the strings-augmented Damaged tour, or this year’s docile OH tour?),
but the tide begins to turn when the band reaches the ferocious crescendo for Is A Woman‘s “The New Cobweb Summer.”

 

That 2002 record was the first to feature guitarist William
Tyler, whose subtle delay effects, Fahey finger-picking and Eddie Willis funk
syncopations raised Lambchop’s live game and are a highlight here throughout. “Grumpus”
and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King” kick the tempo up another gear, and
Wagner’s Curtis Mayfield fixation gets fully fleshed out on “What Else Could It
Be?” with assistance from the crackling horn section. Tony Crow’s rich, gospel-flavored
piano fills prove much stronger than his brief mid-set comedy routine (“with
each joke a song goes by the wayside,” Wagner needles), before the band heads
into even more sublime territory.

 

In fact, the final four-song stretch attains something very
close to rock ‘n’ roll nirvana, as each subsequent song sends the audience
further into an ecstatic state. Beginning with the pulsing, F.M. Cornog-penned cut
from Thriller, “Hey, Where’s Your
Girl?” the whole ensemble enters the pocket and remains right there through stunning versions of “Your Fucking Sunny Day”
and “Up with People.” Scott Martin’s swinging beat, as well as the additional keys
and guitars, power the head-long rush of the first two, while the Stax horns and
multi-member harmonies raise the latter into a secular hymn.

 

But it’s the interplay between the core group – Swanson, Martin,
Crow, Tyler – that allows Wagner’s curious blend of rock, funk and country to realize
these marvelous shapes. Even before Wagner begins his speaking-in-tongues rap
on the finale, “Give It,” an obscure track he recorded with the British
electronica group X-Press 2, the audience has been whipped into such a frenzy
you can’t imagine that there’s yet another level.

 

Oh, but is there. Setting aside his guitar, Wagner morphs
into a revivalist preacher, rising from his chair as though possessed to exhort
his followers to come along on the narrative’s Autumnal circuit. Tyler’s guitar, which begins
like a sea of wind chimes, transforms into thick waves of distortion buffeting
the quickening tempo (as do the other guitars). Swanson’s intricate-but-never-indulgent
bass figures become lifelines in the growing gale, locked into Martin’s
marching percussion which eventually resembles Keith Moon flurries. Crow’s mid-register
gospel chords climb into the keyboard’s right corner with increasing urgency,
mirroring Preacher Wagner’s by-now frantic admonitions.

 

Three minutes in, the transcendent crescendo begins in
earnest and the melody registers a slight shift into something you recognize
but can’t quite finger until Wagner solves the riddle and sings “and you may
find yourself living in a shotgun shack,” the opening line from the Talking
Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime.”  The
juxtaposition of the possessed Wagner with David Byrne’s spastic dance from the
iconic 30-year-old video is more than mere homage; it’s a tangible link to the
independent spirit that always run counter to mainstream music trends through
rock’s history. And that couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to Merge’s 20-year-long,
music-first mission statement.

 

The quiet coda afterward comes like a collective exhale, but
only so the packed house can really let loose when Wagner announces “that’s it”
and introduces the band, and the crowd goes bat-shit crazy with appreciation
(kudos to the woman with the wall-rattling scream).  Even if you weren’t there you come away from
the viewing experience floored by the band’s prowess, exhilarated by the collective joy that
resulted, and more than a little transformed. 

 

As solid as the band is, the film has a couple of flaws that
keep it up from living up to the music’s lofty standards. On the plus side, there
are evocative close-ups that even front row-views don’t afford, made even
warmer by the effective color saturation. Tyler,
for instance, gets such rich textures from his Telecaster because he’s playing
with five picks; i.e., five long finger-picking nails. It would appear Wagner
polishes his nails for added strength, since he occasionally uses the back-side
of his thumbnail for ascending glissandos. Swanson’s Doctor Octopus act on the
bass makes more sense when you see the size of his hands, and Martin’s
stick-work – on the too-rare occasions he’s shown – is even more impressive
close-up. When the cameras capture the occasional smile, or Wagner in his
“Co-Op Horse Feeds” cap in euphoric, mid-song rapture, you can’t help but think
how much goddamn fun it must be to play in Lambchop.

 

But some of those observations came only with multiple
viewings (not a bad thing, by the way), and many were fleshed out by having just
seen the core sextet twice on its recent swing through North Carolina performing a similar set-list.
On the film, Boyd’s editing is heavy handed, some sections as jumpy as a video
made by an ADD sufferer. There are, for instance, 110 (unofficial) cuts during
the 380 seconds of “The New Cobweb Summer,” many lasting little longer than
eye-blinks. When the tempo redlines, Boyd’s cuts really get frantic – with 11
music-makers, you sense Boyd and company decided that was inevitable.

 

It didn’t have to be. As informative as the close-ups are,
an over-reliance on them versus mid-range, multiple-member shots undermines a
bit of what makes this not just the strongest Lambchop collective yet, but
arguably one of the best bands going – how unbelievably tight this unit is. A
few more static shots before cutting away after three or four seconds would let
the viewer really appreciate how these musicians’ considerable chops integrate
into such a rich whole. There aren’t many “wrong instrument” edits here since
Lambchop is not about solo-noodling in any case, but there are a couple —
Swanson’s ridiculous bass runs on “Hey, Where’s Your Girl?” being the most
egregious omission — that you can’t help but wish you could see.  

 

Finally, there is only one crowd shot near the end of the
set. While that means the focus is predominantly where it should be, if Boyd
was going to include so many short-duration shots, why not throw in a few more audience
reaction shots earlier in the set to see the growing ecstasy each number evokes?

 

In the end, these are minor quibbles – the music is so
unique and the band so in the pocket, it’d be near-impossible not to get across
those qualities and the joy they engendered for the lucky fuckers in attendance
that night. Boyd and his camera people may not have been quite as perfect as
Lambchop – but there’s no shame in that.  

 

[Photo Credit: Brian Vetter]

 

Lambchop
– Live at XXMerge is available from the Merge Store in three formats: Audio MP3s
+ high-definition video download; Audio MP3s + standard definition video
download; Limited Edition CD + high-definition video download.

 

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