We were going west down Charlotte Pike on a rainy, breezy Saturday night that called out for a little Clarence White guitar, and you guessed it, The Spin cued up White and The Byrds' country-rock instrumental "Nashville West" on the car stereo as we headed to see the rainy-day pairing of Lambchop and The Altered Statesman at VFW Post 1970. Over the past few years, the Nashville bands have inhabited parallel worlds — they share a relaxed but knowing attitude toward their musical sources, creating compelling pop-by-association dreamscapes that get at something rueful and romantic in the Music City psyche.
The Spin shook off the wet and headed for the bar, noting the VFW hall's out-of-order jukebox and characteristically rich mix of old-time regulars and eager young hipsters. The place was packed, and Altered Statesman singer and songwriter Steve Poulton immediately grabbed the crowd with his late-night, early-morning, white-soul vocalizing — we've always regarded Poulton as one of the scene's most accomplished singers. His phrasing was immaculate, the mix of Patrick Sweany's guitar and Andy Mabe's trumpet was perfectly in key with the sad, shimmering, soul-influenced songs Poulton writes, and stand-up bass player Stephanie Dickinson and drummer Ben Martin kept everything gently swinging.
The Spin approves of Poulton's subject matter, which details the interior lives of men and women awash in the sweet haze of loss and desire. Whether he's singing about someone who needs to send him some loving or the way he used to just hustle some grub, Poulton couches his tough insights in dulcet tones.
You could say the same about Kurt Wagner and Lambchop, but The Spin has always marveled at the way Wagner's vocals cannily mix dulcet tones with elements of pure performance art. Coming off tours to support their new — and critically acclaimed — full-length, Mr. M, the band sounded like they were creating a musical watercolor, with Wagner's acoustic guitar sketching out songs that were embellished upon by guitarist William Tyler, pedal steel player Luke Schneider and guest vocalist Cortney Tidwell. The rhythm section of drummer Scott Martin, bassist Matt Swanson and guitarist-keyboardist Ryan Norris provided a soft, subtle backdrop for pianist Tony Crow.
Doing just about all of Mr. M — highlights included a fine "2B2" with Tidwell contributing eerily gorgeous and wordless vocalizing, and a great version of "Betty's Overture" — the band played in such a minimalist, sneaky way, it got The Spin to musing over the role of Crow in the band. His piano playing is on the beat, but full of overtones that aren't jazzy, exactly, and not really country, either. Crow could've easily fit in playing for American Studios in Memphis in 1968 — his immaculate chords and fills on the What Another Man Spills track "Interrupted" put us in mind of "I Can't Make It Alone," a classic cut from Dusty in Memphis.
The symbiosis between Crow and Wagner seemed to drive the band, but everyone made thoughtful, Zen-tinged contributions, allowing Wagner to do his thing. The band encored with the theme from Squidbillies, along with Brian Wilson's "Guess I'm Dumb," which Glen Campbell recorded in 1965. The evening ended with Lambchop doing Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," which was magnificent.
Toward the end, Crow joked around — looking toward Schneider, he asked, "Hey Luke, do you think that Jack White and Jack Black get along?" Perhaps used to the Crow wit by now, Schneider wasn't sure about that, either. Crow also sang an impromptu song to tour manager Joe Puleo, and told the crowd, "If for some reason you didn't have a good time, we're CYOD," referring to the '90s band Crow, Swanson and Lambchop producer Mark Nevers played in, way back in the indie-rock era. As always, Lambchop and The Altered Statesman gave fans a glimpse into their world, where the gentle rain falls on the happy and the condemned alike.