Words By: Matthew Jaworski
Kurt Wagner :: 08.25.08 :: The Living Room :: New York, NY
"Why isn't Kurt Wagner a superstar?"
While I've had this thought before, it hit me again midway through his stellar solo set at The Living Room. As frontman for the Nashville-based collective Lambchop, Wagner sculpts luscious melodies and pens intimate, delicate, transfixing lyrics that wrap around you like your favorite, warmest sweater. With his trademark trucker cap, Buddy Holly glasses and "aw-shucks" humility, he sings about the picayune, seemingly trivial details of life in such a transcendent way that you know he has lived every word he's written.
Wagner began the show at the back of the room and started singing "Give It" by U.K. electronic/dance group X-Press 2. The album version, which Kurt sang vocals on, is chock-full of keyboards, guitars, symphonic strings, programmed drumbeats and a gospel choir (you can hear it on X-Press 2's MySpace page). Without them, the tune was transformed from a dancehall thumper to a church spiritual. As he walked through the audience towards the stage, Wagner's classic sing-speak style rang throughout the cozy space and prepared the crowd for a warming, subtly brilliant set.
Next, Wagner picked up his guitar and sat in front of the mic, yet made no mention of the clothesline (complete with clothespins, naturally) that stretched out in front of him. He followed up a sweet, lilting version of Bob Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now" with the lush "Slipped Dissolved and Loosed," a brand-new song that will appear on Lambchop's forthcoming album OH (ohio), which will be released on October 7. In fact, on this night, Kurt played all but two of the new album's eleven excellent tunes.
The clothesline's purpose became evident when he finished the first song, picked up the lyrics sheet and affixed it to the clothespin. "I know the clothesline is kinda hick," he wryly said, "but it's a good place to dry out." With the pages fluttering around his head, the next few songs unfolded with hushed beauty. Wagner's voice sometimes gets buried on record; live and without any accompaniment other than his velvety guitar, his vocals shone through, saddling the words themselves with more weight. Likewise, tunes like "National Talk Like a Pirate Day" and "Sharing a Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr.," which are faster and more up-beat on the album, were slowed down and aired out, furthering the evening's Southern, down-home vibe. Thanks to the papers waving on the clothesline, the squeaky stool that was reminiscent of a weathered rocking chair and his disarming humility, Wagner made the audience feel like they were sitting on his front porch, listening to their old friend play some new music.
"This is a song about the decline of telecommunications," Wagner said, introducing the graceful "A Hold of You." The alt-country gods must have been paying attention: as he was singing about missed phone calls and poor communication, his muted cell phone started interfering with the equipment, eliciting electric chirping sounds from the monitors. Both Kurt and the crowd shared smiles at the impeccably timed twist of fate.
To close out the show, Wagner covered country singer Don Williams' "I Believe in You." The song boasts beautifully simple lines like, "I believe in love/ I believe in music/ I believe in magic and I believe in you," that came across as sincere and gracious. Finishing on this uplifting high-note, he gave the euphoric crowd an appreciative wave and walked outside to hang out, a front-porch superstar spending time with his Big City friends.
08.25.08 :: The Living Room :: New York, NY
Give It, You're a Big Girl Now, Slipped Dissolved and Loosed, Close Up, National Talk Like a Pirate Day, I'm Thinking of a Number (Between 1 and 2), Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr., A Hold of You, Of Raymond, Please Rise, I Believe in You
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