Lambchop, CMJ Music Conference, Irving Plaza, New York, October 21

Live Shots


CMJ Music Conference,

Irving Plaza, New York, October 21

Music conference, what music conference? There was only one thing happening in New York City on this balmy Saturday night: the Subway Series. "You gotta badge?" asked the Mets booster at the door, craning his neck back inside toward the TV on the bar. Game 1, no score. The entire downstairs bar staff is yelling. Yeah, pal, I gotchyer badge ... Upstairs, 300 scruffy music-industry types mill about as if in purgatory, 9pm still too early to get drunk. Chapel Hill indie label Merge Records has been showcasing its wares since about suppertime, starting with the swell country croonings of Paul Burch, but the shuffling nerds on the second floor are no match for the baseballheads on the first. "It's still 0-0," Nashville singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner says wryly when the small herd calling itself Lambchop finally settles onstage. On cue, the ersatz stadium downstairs erupts. Wagner's Nashville collective, configured here at a dozen or so, appears amused. Up comes the four-piece horn section, three trumpets and a baritone sax player wearing a Rush Exit ... Stage Left tour T-shirt, greeted by eerie guitar atmospherics, organ, and Paul Niehaus' pedal steel. Wagner, seated centerstage, a box topped with pages of lyrics in front of him, starts his vocal narcolepsy. Unlike the band's prescient, election-year release Nixon -- a sly concept album with a reading list that includes Tricky Dick & the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas -- Wagner's high falsetto is nowhere to be found. This doesn't seem to bother fellow Nashvillian Paul Burch on vibes, his crystalline instrument highlighting the singer's rustic soul croak. Whereas Nixon and 1998's sultry Curtis Mayfield-by-way-of-Lou Reed spritzer What Another Man Spills prove that '70s R&B is the natural soundtrack to '00s indie-rock dysfunction, Lambchop live could almost be defined as Americana (whatever that is). In other words, Wagner and his rarely touring gang of session men and women rock, but with irony. And moping. It's a wandering and wonderful sound. "It's the middle of the fifth," says Wagner turning to his organ player to crank up the portable radio on his instrument, "and it's still 0-0. See, there's really no reason to be downstairs. Well, actually, I'd be down there." Not a chance, murmurs the room, agog at the slacker psychedelica that Lambchop hoofs its way through slowly. "Two nothing?" Wagner asks. "Yeah? New York's ahead." He laughs at his own joke. Then, almost under his breath, "Go Mets." Sixty minutes passes quickly, Burch switching to drums on the simmering "Open the Box," the band undulating smoothly to their leader's lyrical syncopation. By set's end the Mets lead 3-2. "In fact, they've won the Series," smirks Wagner. Not quite. But on this NYC Saturday night, two notable things occurred.

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