“Keep it down,” a mock-worried Kurt Wagner pleads with the boisterously enthusiastic crowd towards the end of tonight’s generously portioned set. “We’re in a church.”
The evening had started very differently. Inspired in part by the untimely death of cult American songwriter Vic Chesnutt, the sombre, slow-burning cuts from Lambchop’s new album Mr. M that fill the first half of tonight’s setlist are virtually tailor-made for Manchester Cathedral’s grand surroundings, inspire as they do hushed contemplation rather than fists-pumping rock action.
It’s subtle stuff, built for the gradually accumulating rewards of repeated listens rather than instant thrills. It’s a testament to the band’s prowess that they manage to keep the crowd, many no doubt unfamiliar with an album that’s only been in the shops for a few days, spellbound from the opening ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ onwards.
The fact that new album’s a stunning return to form for the veteran combo helps. Lambchop’s less compelling outings since their early 00’s creative peaks (2000’s country-got-soul classic Nixon, 2002’s almost confrontationally minimalistic Is A Woman, Mr. M being parked somewhere in the middle) have led Wagner’s observational songwriting down some humdrum side roads. Mr. M’s vintage crooner-inspired confessionals – not that these songs ever resort to anything as conventional and predictable as tearstained navel-gazing – prove Wagner’s pen is sharper than ever.
The days when Lambchop would hit the road as a huge, brass-enriched ensemble are gone. What the current stripped-down six-piece lack in man/womanpower, they compensate for with an impressive scope. Wisely, there’s no attempt to replicate Mr. M’s prominent orchestral arrangements with artificial supplements to live action. Instead, the inspired vocal hook-up between Cortney Tidwell’s echo-laden harmonies and the nicotine-stained, beautifully phrased croon of Wagner (whose guitar-plucking right hand appears to act as a conductor for the band’s unpredictable shifts in volume and intensity), new member Luke Schneider‘s pedal steel and Tony Crow’s piano acrobatics fill in where cellos and flutes used to coo, leading to an intimate yet expansive sound that adds plenty of nuance and dynamics into what is a fairly uniformly paced set of tunes.
As deep and heavy as their new songs are, Lambchop still aren’t taking themselves entirely seriously. The encore – which Wagner points out will last exactly as long as it’ll take for the beer he’s drinking to work its way through his system, in a good example of the self-deprecating stage banter on offer tonight – is a hoot, with Crow making up daft country ditties on the spot, Wagner batting off obscure audience requests and Morrissey-esque quiff-sporting Schneider subjected to the public humiliation of having to croon a Smiths hit (apparently a permanent fixture on the current tour).
The band’s one near-hit ‘Up with People’ is turned into a communal holler-along, with band members and audience doing their best to compensate for the missing horn riffs with gusto that has Wagner wondering whether such antics have any place in a church setting. Afterwards, the usually perma-seated Wagner gets up from his seat to ham it up during the closing ‘Give It’ in the manner of some crazed, trucker cap-wearing country preacher testifying to his reverential congregation.
If this really is Lambchop’s swansong, as Wagner has threatened, they’re leaving on a definite high.