Lambchop @ City Recital Hall, Sydney (22/01/2012)

In the promo video for Lambchop’s current tour, in support of forthcoming record Mr.M, bandleader Kurt Wagner sits on a stool, languidly puffing on a cigarette. Some smoke wafts through shadow. Then the tour dates roll, white on black, like old movie credits. And that’s about it. While most bands would include some, you know, footage of them playing or at least some rapturous crowd reactions to try to tempt punters along to the shows, the classic minimalism of this video is the 2012 version of Lambchop all over: unhurried, restrained and completely comfortable with their idiosyncratic approach to making music.

A band of great subtlety, Lambchop demand your complete attention but they also reward it handsomely. Tonight’s set sees them playing as a six piece (including Wagner’s KORT collaborator Cortney Tidwell on “exquisite backing vocals”) and it’s hard to imagine any other band of this size making producing such quiet, finely detailed music. William Tyler’s guitar work provides an understated, tasteful foil to Wagner’s rich baritone, while Scott Martin plays the drums as though afraid of breaking them.

More than most bands, Lambchop’s songs benefit from familiarity, making it something of a shame that tonight’s performance is mostly new material from forthcoming album Mr M, including the lush If Not, I’ll Just Die and a number of songs apparently never performed live before. On first listen, it’s easy to get lost in the dreamy, woozy back porch atmosphere and not focus on Wagner’s impressionistic storytelling. So while these songs sound fine right now, there’s every chance they’ll sound even better when given time to sink in.

While uncompromising in their approach and hardly crowd-pleasing in the traditional sense, the Nashville icons well and truly won over all present and were coaxed back for an encore of some old favourite The Man Who Loved Beer, and finally, the rousing soul rave-up of Up With People which ensured the night finished on an uplifting note.

At one point Wagner had joked that the Sydney Festival, featuring not just his performance in Lambchop but also shows solo and with KORT, felt like some career retrospective, an episode of This is Your Life. This beautifully controlled performance suggested it’s not time to talk about his work in the past tense yet – almost two decades into their career, Lambchop continue to plot their own path.