“I’m really happy as shit right now,” said podunk poet Kurt Wagner at Brooklyn’s Bell House on Friday night. Sitting with his guitar and the four touring companions who currently constitute Nashville alt-country lifers Lambchop, Wagner had just capped an hour of new songs from the band’s lovely and lachrymose Mr. M with the classic heartacher, “N.o.”
“This is one of the darkest songs I know,” the singer said in the shade of his worn black baseball cap. “But don’t confuse that with how I feel about you.”
Trimmed from 20-or-so members on previous outings, Lambchop now travels as a nimble quintet that allows for one of the most controlled, intimate atmospheres of the band’s touring career. The reduced lineup seems a strange vehicle for promoting Mr. M, the band’s 11th and possibly most meticulously arranged album in 20 years, but on Friday Lambchop made it clear right away through a ghostly deconstruction of “Give It,” usually deployed as a show-stopping hootenanny, that replicating studio lushness wasn’t the intention; crafting a hauntingly personal live experience was the far more rewarding goal.
In barely more than a whisper, barely loud enough to sustain the baritone purr that underlies his unique voice, Wagner began the set by reciting the familiar “Give It” lyrics with the sobriety of a storm warning. Around him, the room tingled with a single flatlining organ key, a hushed cymbal shudder, and the occasional ominous bass note hit only to accentuate the gravity of Wagner’s careful words, never to disguise them. The audience—half seated, half ringed around the back and side walls of the Bell House in a horseshoe that mirrored Lambchop’s onstage arrangement—was silent, too timid even to applaud as longtime Lambchopper Tony Crow’s first elegant piano roll transitioned into Mr. M opener “If Not I’ll Just Die.” Only after the song’s lazy drum shuffle picked up did the crowd finally exhale long enough to settle in for the quiet thunderstorm of fresh material ahead. The applause would come next.
Lambchop focused most of its 90-minute set on Mr. M selections, countering the album’s dense vocal harmonies and string arrangements with calculated plays of call and response. Wagner’s preferred guitar—a modest acoustic-electric with untrimmed strings that bobbed from the head like decades of beard growth—coughed, hiccuped and hummed each song’s rhythm in muted plucks and percussive palm strikes, challenging the bass, drums and piano to answer with equally understated asides that joined in a single whispered symphony. Stripped of excess and bolstered by Wagner’s inviting voice, Lambchop successfully rendered each of the night’s tunes into a singularly tense and beautiful experience, earning extra applause for the full-bodied plucking of “Mr. Met,” the chipper cruise-control groove of “Gone Tomorrow” and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of “Buttons.”
Through a vast catalog of lyrics, interviews and offstage interactions (Wagner was chowing on a fat slice of pizza and chatting with passersby outside the Bell House minutes after the set ended), the head and heart of Lambchop has positioned himself as the kind of down-home everyman that top-selling country voices strive to represent. When Wagner laughed along with the crowd during encore track “Soaky in the Pooper,” though, it’s hard to believe he was tickled by his own wordplay alone. Serenading a sold-out room of people with a ballad about one man’s struggles with an overflowing apartment toilet, and moving them to chills in the process, is something worth smiling about in itself.