Kurt Wagner @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney (22/01/12)
Those lucky enough to see all three of Kurt Wagner’s manifestations at this year’s Sydney Festival experienced a wonderful insight into his influences, the way he creates his music and how deeply he believes in country music as an art form. As KORT (with singer Cortney Tidwell) he dug into her family’s musical history while with his band Lambchop he made his grand statement, performing most of their new LP Mr. M for the first time. To round off his series of shows Wagner took to the intimate Spiegeltent stage for a solo show that firmly placed the focus on his songs and in particular his witty, sarcastic, melancholic lyrics.
Wagner’s sole prop on stage was a custom designed clothes line that allowed him to peg up his lyric sheets after each song, gradually being surrounded by his songs – in his words “airing them out”. It was nice touch that perfectly illustrated the way Wagner approaches his music. He revels in irreverence and delights in turns of phrase that sound awkward and unconventional yet they are essential to the songs ‘working’ and not reclining into sap and sentimentality.
Stating from the outset that he was finding it difficult to not repeat himself over the festival Wagner proceeded to reach back through his hefty catalogue of songs, handpicking gems from the early days right through to the heartbreaking beauty of Never My Love from the forthcoming new record Mr. M. I suspect some of the audience who were unfamiliar with Wagner’s work would have felt that the funereal pace of the performance dragged at times but that is the key to enjoying his music – you need to sit back and allow yourself to be gently pulled into the songs and wander through the words in an almost semi-awake state.
Wagner paused at times to introduce songs like the “pre-internet” FAQ, the ode to an obnoxious friend Bon Soir, Bon Soir and The Decline of Country & Western Civilisation – his message to the first national leader of the Klu Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest who erected a hideous statue in his own honour. Elsewhere we were treated to a pared back version of National Talk Like A Pirate Day and the poignant Gettysburg Address. The ability of Wagner to hold the attention of the audience with such restrained music was a testament to his unexpectedly impressive guitar playing, his deep and strangely hypnotic singing/talking vocal style and his interaction with the crowd. Whether it was his introductions or a hilarious Q&A complete with interjections from Lambchop members that was openly designed to pad out the set he managed and guided the audience brilliantly.
For fans and newcomers The Famous Spiegeltent was the perfect setting to get inside the songs of Kurt Wagner who cemented his position as one of the leading lights of intellectual, contemporary country music.