The gold stereo stretched out the sound last night at The Basement as Nashville's most fucked-up country band, Lambchop, took the stage to re-create its seminal 2000 album Nixon. The occasion was a fundraiser for Lambchop mastermind Kurt Wagner's wife Mary Mancini, who's running for state Senate in Tennessee's District 21.
Yes, the irony of performing a record named for ol' Tricky Dick, the late Republican president and the most sinister politician in American history, at a fundraiser for Mancini — a Democrat, former leader of Tennessee Citizen Action and co-founder of the much-missed Liberadio(!) — was probably irresistible. But regardless, for those assembled, this promised to be a magical evening, a chance to see Wagner, arguably the godfather of Nashville's indie-rock scene, perform the band's watershed album. (Wikipedia calls Nixon a “commercial breakthrough,” which might be true in a relative sense, anyway.)
The Spin checked out the second of two performances, and there was a healthy turnout, though there was certainly room for more. Of course, Lambchop performing Nixon would probably sell more tickets at London's Royal Albert Hall, but hey, it's Nashville, right? Even though 14 years isn't a particularly long stretch in terms of musical history, the set provided a chance to reflect on just how much the city — particularly the local rock scene — has changed since the turn of the millennium. Nixon came out long before Kings of Leon were selling out arenas or JEFF the Brotherhood was tearing it up on national TV. In its own understated way, the album was a fairly radical statement at the time, sounding the clarion that there were brilliant and twisted poetic and sonic rumblings lurking in the shadows of the Music Row behemoth.
OK, enough pretentious journalistic blathering. So how was the performance, you ask?
In a word (or two), pretty spectacular. From the opening lines of the gently haunting “The Old Gold Shoe” through to the album's final cut, “The Butcher Boy,” Wagner and his crack band — drummer Scott Martin, bassist Matt Swanson, guitarist/steel player Paul Niehaus, keyboard/guitar player Ryan Norris, keyboardist Tony Crow and Matt Glassmeyer on cornet, tenor sax, flute and anything that wasn't nailed down — had the audience rapt. Sure, they may have been preaching to the choir, but it was compelling sermon regardless. Wagner's falsetto may not soar quite as high anymore, but his gentle yet insistent delivery is as hypnotizing as ever.
There were plenty of highlights. The aforementioned opening track, The Spin's favorite Lambchop cut of all time, was just as warped and beautiful as ever. (The major-seventh chord, widely considered the prettiest and happiest of all chords, never sounded more melancholy.) The lilting “Grumpus” served as a reminder that the band is just as indebted to Memphis soul as to Nashville's countrypolitan sound. A deft reimagining of “The Butcher Boy” was more in the spirit of Lambchop then the actual album cut. But nothing could top “Up With People,” which rivals “Your Fucking Sunny Day” (from 1997's Thriller) as the definitive anthem of that era in Nashville's underground music scene. Few songs are more capable of getting an innately dance-averse crowd bouncing on their feet, and when Glassmeyer hit the signature horn line, it felt like the whole club was floating three feet above Eighth Avenue South.
And what more fitting way to celebrate the campaign of Mary Mancini — founder of legendary ’90s independent record store Lucy's Record Shop and one of the greatest supporters of Nashville's indie-rock scene. After the final strains of “The Butcher Boy,” the guest of honor took the stage, and talked about how excited she was when her husband mentioned he'd like to do Nixon for a fundraiser. “I've learned after 19 years of marriage not to get too excited about something, because you never know what can happen,” she said to hearty laughter. There was also something about happy hours every Friday at the Capitol when she wins.
Of course, Wagner had the final words. “I'm looking forward to being first badass. I don't think they've had one of those up there in a while. I'm keeping my mouth shut until then. And then, watch the fuck out.”
Then Wagner & Co. closed the evening with Curtis Mayfield's “Give Me Your Love,” something Mancini surely hopes the assembled crowd will do come Election Day.