We of The Spin love fall nights, and we reveled in an exceptional specimen as we trundled down Charlotte Avenue past the wall of thrift stores to The Stone Fox. The stars winking from a rain-washed sky, the brisk breeze scattering the lingering clouds, the leaves crunching underfoot — they left us grinning ear to ear, but more importantly, they left us hankering for a hot meal. Good thing we rolled up early for the announced-last-minute Lambchop show, because there was a sizable crowd also after a bowl of spicy gumbo.
The club, a new venture by brother-sister duo and industry veterans William and Elise Tyler, has only been open for a month, but it already feels established — like Cheers, with more Rhea Perlman and less Ted Danson. The eats are tasty, the bar selection is broad but not overwhelming, and the Tylers are using their powers for good in booking the venue. As we grubbed, we spied Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner and his venerable ensemble setting up, and we noted how quick they were, but it shouldn’t be much of a surprise — after 25 years in various incarnations, this part is old hat.
Lambchop is a musical chameleon, bending a wide range of styles around Wagner’s gentle melancholy and dry wit. Over the years, a variety of notable musicians have moved through the group’s ranks, including pedal steel wizard Paul Niehaus, master engineer and producer Mark Nevers, skilled singer-songwriter Paul Burch, and guitar guru William Tyler himself. Thursday night’s five-piece featured the current core lineup: Scott Martin on drums, Matt Swanson on bass, Tony Crow on piano, Ryan Norris on organs and guitar, Meadownoise’s Matt Glassmeyer with a small arsenal of wind instruments, and leader Kurt Wagner with his trademark feed store cap in the guitar station.
Shortly, they opened the set with a bubbling and shimmering instrumental homage to the master of the house (who, as far as wee could see, was not in attendance), “Being Tyler,” which introduces their 2004 record Aw C’mon. The arrangement was jazzy and intricate, but the players avoided flashy ornamentation that would draw attention to their considerable skills. Wagner kept his guitar tone dark and smooth, and finessed his attack so that it sounded more like a third piano woven in with the other two, while Glassmeyer’s reeds evoked a sunny afternoon somewhere in Europe. Dang, there weren’t even any lyrics yet, and we were feeling poetic.
The trend of unforced virtuosity continued, as the band gave the impression that this is what they’d be doing even if they were alone in their living room. Subtlety was key — of the kit, only the bass drum was miked for the PA. Many in the audience sat cross-legged at the foot of the stage. Glassmeyer joined Martin in the rhythm section with a modified acoustic guitar played like a washboard, and then began to play the only bass clarinet we’ve ever seen in the wild. Then, of course, there was a cameo from the diminutive but always mellifluously voiced local powerhouse Cortney Tidwell, Wagner's foil in the excellent side project KORT. No one sings like Tidwell — or moves, for that matter. But rather than a KORT song, Tidwell joined in on another tune from Mr. M — we're fairly certain it was the lovely and understated "2B2," though a head full of boozy memories can sometimes get flip-flopped.
Wagner checked a stack of lyric sheets, some of which were faded and dog-eared. Though the band was decidedly subdued, we sometimes lost his soft singing underneath the chatter of the jean-jacketed crowd. As we moved around the room for a better listen, we recognized “Nice Without Mercy” from Mr. M — Lambchop's most recent record and a tribute to the late Vic Chestnutt, a close friend of Wagner’s whom they backed up on his classic The Salesman and Bernadette. After thanking us, Wagner counted off the closing number and the most driving of the night, “You Masculine You” from 2000’s Nixon. Even at their energetic peak, the group remained restrained and focused, and flourishes like pinging an unmiked gong from an old clock were left to be noticed or not. This was definitely more like a live art exhibit than a rock ‘n’ roll show, but a Spin can’t live on beats 2 and 4 alone. Full of soup, beer and Lambchop, we drifted contentedly for the ol’ sack.