Lambchop’s Slow Boil at U Street

IMG_3714Over its career, Lambchop has been known to travel with as many as 20 members performing its hushed, quirky and often contemplative alt-country.

At the U Street Music Hall Saturday night, there were just four.

Which was good, since the small stage couldn’t fit many more in the first place. And it suited the surprising turn for the band with its latest album FLOTUS, which is not about the First Lady at all, but is an acronym for another heartsick observation, “For Love Often Turns Us Still.”

In what sort of seems a natural evolution, its bandleader, writer and singer Kurt Wagner has moved his moody tone poems from pedal steel guitar and piano to pulses of electronica. Layers of atmospheric sound back his own vocals which have been multiplied and broadcast through a Vocoder like device he plays like a keyboard. Sometimes you’d hear a veritable chorus of voices from stage and they’d all end up having a single source in Wagner behind his devices.

It’s not as jarring a career move as, say Neil Young’s “Re-ac-tor,” Joe Ely’s “Hi-Res” or Bon Iver’s “22, A Million.” But it is still surprising coming from a Nashville guy who still wears a seed cap.

And behind the electronic wash, the human heart of Lambchop and its world-weary observations about romance and the world endure.

“I don’t want to leave you ever, and that’s a long long time,” he sings, when the lyrics finally come in the longest work on the new album, “The Hustle.”

The bulk of the show came from FLOTUS — eight of its 11 tracks were performed, along with just two others, “Poor Bastard” mid set and “My Blue Wave” to start the encore.

The reliance on the new work managed to create a singular spell as its pulses and tones wove together. At the same time, there were different approaches such that the rest of the musicians could stand out. Bassist Matt Swanson gave a musical spine to much of the work; pianist Tony Crow adding nice touches (and not so nice jokes between a couple of songs). Andy Stack of Why Oak played so softly it almost didn’t seem there was a drum, but he was adept on electronic pads and keyboards as well.

At first, Wagner seemed to alternate between guitar and keyboards, as if to ease the transition. There were times, too, when his accompanying  trio were off playing and improvising like a small jazz trio.

The crowd was unique for a Saturday night crowd at U Street — absolutely silent and rapt all through the music.

So when it came to closing the show, and having to choose between a shorter song and a much longer one — Wagner showed the difference in the length of the lyrics sheets to illustrate — it of course chose the longer if only to have more performance time. In this case, the choice was the languorous, melodic “In Care of 8675309” (even when the alternative would have been their remake of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”).

Opening the show, the bookish trio Sloppy Heads from Brooklyn played alternately confessional and noisy rock, and tended to exchange instruments every few songs. If they brought to mind Yo La Tengo at times, it may be because its James McNew, a producer of the Sloppy Heads album, was looming behind them as a backing musician, adding occasional licks on guitar.

And they’re such fans of Lambchop, they even spent a minute reviving its weird, 20-year-old punk track, describing sexual congress with an employer.

 

The setlist for Lambchop Saturday was:

  • “Relatives #2″
  • “The Hustle”
  • “Directions to the Can”
  • “Poor Bastard”
  • “Old Masters”
  • “Writer”
  • “JFK”
  • “Harbor Country”
  • “My Blue Wave”
  • “In Care of 8675309″

 

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