Live Music + Gig Reviews

Lambchop @ Barbican, London

1 June 2024

Kurt Wagner returns for a scaled back show that sees him explore new musical worlds in typically abstract, impressionistic and cryptic fashion

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop (Photo: Danny Koetter)

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop (Photo: Danny Koetter)

Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner has enjoyed something of a creative renaissance over recent years, moving away from the alt-country of their earlier albums to a more experimental, looser sound that focuses on mood-centred sonic portraiture than traditionally structured songs. Billed as an ‘intimate piano performance’, this show at the Barbican was actually somewhat more than that, featuring Andrew Broder on piano, Cole Davis on double bass and a small choir assembled by Blake Morgan of Voces8.

Wagner’s recent diversionary musical path started with 2016’s FLOTUS with subsequent albums like This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You), Showtunes and 2022’s The Bible further extending the reconsidered aesthetic. Most of tonight’s show was drawn from The Bible, arguably the most successful of recent albums, although there were also to be some older treats in store.

Wagner arrives on stage dressed in a suit with customary baseball cap and performs with a relaxed demeanour throughout, hands in pockets, often taking up a position to side of stage in the shadows while the band play on. The minimal lighting means his face is obscured by shadow of his cap, something which adds to the crepuscular ambience of the performance.

They ease their way into the performance, opening pair His Song Is Sung and So There both registering as watery, late-night missives, Wagner’s tapered vocals blending softly into the music. The latter sees some muted Rhapsody In Blue-like piano digressions courtesy of Broder while at other times during the evening the way his piano playing interacts with Davis’ double bass recalls the improvisational qualities of The Necks.

Wagner’s voice seems to get more extraordinary and unique with each passing year, all soft manoevrings and teetering enunciations. The evening’s biggest surprise arguably comes with a performance of Give It, the track that Wagner recorded in 2005 with London electronic duo X-Press 2. Tonight it marks a brief diversion away from the low-key, melancholy mood of recent Lambchop tracks, the choir contributing finger clicks and Wagner adding further elaborations by including lines from Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime.

A Major Minor Drag might not tonight feature the autotuned vocals of the record but along with A Chef’s Kiss from Showtunes they deepen the opaque, ambient mood that settles in the Barbican Hall (the way that each track is ran into the other, limiting the opportunity for applause, seems to further heighten the respectful air). Recent Lambchop material may not be the most immediate but moments like these very much confirm it to be fascinating and subtly idiosyncratic music. 

In our 2021 interview with Wagner he contextualised the songs on Showtunes, comparing them to those songs that might be heard in musicals and theatre productions and tonight’s performance definitely helped make additional sense of those comments.

The second half of the show sees them revisit earlier chapters of Lambchop’s history. The New Cobweb Summer offers more in the way of mahogany voiced, inky shapes and they later play suitably sparse versions of The Man Who Loved Beer and Theöne from 1995’s How I Quit Smoking. They add to the introverted, scaled back nature of the show, contributing to a much more subdued atmosphere than their previous visits here in 2012 and 2015 (there’s certainly nothing played tonight to match the upbeat version of David Bowie’s Young Americans that from their 2015 show).

There are a few moments of lightness however. They play a fun, self-referencing cover of Listening (To Lambchop By Myself Again) by Texas guitar-pop outfit Sun June and naturally Up With People makes its usual revitalising, joyous appearance in the set, benefitting in particular from the choir. Police Dog Blues meanwhile could be the best song Wagner has written in a decade, with Broder tonight capably handling the soulful vocal parts of the original. It all adds up to a stunningly beautiful show that shows Wagner to be exploring new musical worlds in typically abstract, impressionistic and cryptic fashion.

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More on Lambchop
Lambchop @ Barbican, London
Lambchop – The Bible
Lambchop – Showtunes
Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner: “I was looking for something less structured, something I hadn’t done before” – Interview
Lambchop – This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You)