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Why oh why isn’t Lambchop playing to bigger crowds? Kurt Wagner’s songs have the right blend of aching melodies and sardonic, black humor and he has one of the most distinctive voices in indie music. But mention the name Lambchop and most will give a passing comment on Sheri Lewis and know next to nothing about this Nashville band.

The first time I saw Lambchop was in Washington, D.C. in support of the Damaged album. There must have been 30 people in the audience at most. Hey, at least the dude from Guatemala I brought dug the music and I can imagine he’s somewhere in the Guatemalan mountains digging on the burned copy of Damaged I gave him. But Guatemalans aside, what the fuck is wrong with American audiences to keep them from falling in love with these guys?

The Aladdin is a small Portland theater with general admission seating. My friends and I opted to drink a beer during the opener and when we arrived 15 minutes before Lambchop’s performance, we could still score three seats together five rows back from the stage. Rumors always swirl about a Lambchop show, wryly dubbed Nashville’s most fucked-up country band. Some say that the band crams as many as 16 players on a small stage, that Wagner remains seated through an entire performance unless the Holy Ghost of rock propels him from his seat. But as the six musicians took the stage and played well over the 90 minute time posted near the bar, those of us in the know were treated to a solid, intimate performance that frequently broke down the wall separating audience from performer.

Clad in a white button-down shirt and oversized Co-op Horse Feeds cap, Wagner could be described as Elvis Costello gone down to the farm. Kicking off with the loungey sweetness of “Ohio,” the band launched into a 20 song set that highlighted numbers from the recent OH (ohio). The songs ranged from the lovely ballad “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed” to the rambling, hilarious “National Talk Like a Pirate Day”. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the evening was the levels of sound were absolutely perfect. No billowy, residual feedback or drowned out vocals marred the performance. Wagner even had the gumption to tackle Bob Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now,” deepening the songs sorrow in the sympathetic heartbreak of his crack back-up band.

At one point, the show stopped and pianist Tony Crow began to tell jokes as bad as “Why did Captain Hook shave his balls?” As the jokes kept coming, the band began to laugh with the audience and soon the show took on shadows of a bad stand-up show. But such banter added to the intimacy, giving Wagner and crew the opportunity to interact with the audience. So much, that the band appeared lose track of time and Wagner vowed to keep playing on, closing out the set with a rousing version of “Give It” which melded into a reading of Talking Heads’s “Once in a Lifetime.”

After a much earned standing ovation, the band returned for a three song encore which included chestnuts “My Blue Wave” and “Your Fucking Sunny Day.” It was a triumphant performance, and though the small audience shouted for more, it really should have been the band shouting for more from us.

(Photos: Oliver Peel)

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