Kurt Wagner is a musician who functions on curiosity and process, never sure what his next phase will be until he’s in the middle of it. A native of Nashville who is overly fond of grain and feed hats and apologizes for the train going by while on the phone from his front porch, he’s a master of unassuming misdirection and stealth profundity.
Wagner is the auteur of Lambchop, the name for his ensembles with a rotating cast of characters and musical styles. Amid whatever myriad swirls and layers of sound he has fostered, he lies low in the mix, his penetrating talk-sung vocal delivering lyrics that meld the existential with the mundane, with a world-weary tone that somehow manages to tingle the perfect nuances.
On Friday and Saturday night at the Walker Art Center, Wagner will perform what are probably the most ambitious concerts of his iconoclastic career, less than two weeks before his 63rd birthday. The set list will contain songs from his last two albums: “Showtunes,” released in 2021, and “The Bible,” which comes out on Sept. 30. This time around, Lambchop will be a 16-piece band, replete with a horn section and a choir.
Minneapolis is the fitting location for this endeavor, and not just because the Walker and Liquid Music (who are co-commissioning the concerts, along with Liquid Music producing and the Walker presenting) both make it their mission to promote artists who cross-pollinate genres in distinctively innovative ways. Better still, Wagner has wandered into the most democratic collaboration of his far-flung career with a pair of Twin Cities-based musicians, to the point where these concerts, and “The Bible” specifically, are a paean to this community and his musical cohorts.
Cut from the same cloth
The relationships began four years ago, in the fall of 2018. A bunch of Minnesota musicians were bullshitting around a table like always, swapping inside jokes, tales from the mixing board and other technical tricks of the trade. Except they were all 4,400 miles from home, taking a break from the action at PEOPLE Festival, an annual, chaotic confab for independent musicians in Berlin.
As the conversation continued to gyrate among his friends, producer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Broder, perhaps best known locally for groups and solo projects under the name Fog, spotted one of his heroes, Kurt Wagner, off by himself in a corner. Back in 2002, Broder had attended a Lambchop gig at the 400 Bar on the West Bank. A snowstorm had reduced attendance to a throng not much larger than the 10 musicians onstage, but Broder was blown away by Wagner’s new material, songs from Lambchop’s then-latest album, “Is A Woman.”
“It really changed my approach,” Broder said of the album. “I started doing piano a little more, my stuff got quieter, my writing became a little different.”
Having already told Wagner this earlier in the festival, Broder now walked over and invited him to come sit at the table in Germany. “Instantly we all realized we were cut from the same cloth. Kurt was a DIY dude, an unpretentious working musician who had his own lane but was always a shapeshifter,” Broder recalled, speaking by phone from his Fridley home last week. As if to reinforce the point, Wagner was staying with him, in town to prep and rehearse for this weekend’s concerts.
Broder played a couple of sets and even recorded a tune with Wagner at the festival, beginning what he calls “our musical pen pal” relationship. The connection went a little deeper when Wagner reached out to Broder and another Minnesota-by-way-of-Berlin ally, Ryan Olson (of Poliça, Gayngs, Bon Iver and others) to help him with “Showtunes.” Broder supplemented Wagner’s midi-piano lines with more soulful keyboards, and also played some turntables, while Olson handled a lot of the production, that, along with horn charts from non-Minnesotan CJ Camerieri, beefed up the scope and sound of the record.
In inimitable Wagner fashion, “Showtunes” is almost a parody of showtunes, very light on dazzle and practically devoid of boffo happy endings. Wagner calls it “spiritual music for the godforsaken.” But it also contains a rich, ineffable beauty and ache characteristic of many Lambchop efforts.
“I love how sparse certain moments are, and how the compositions allow the listener space for imagination. But there are also these grand gestures that adds up to something that feels almost operatic to me,” said Liquid Music founder and curator Kate Nordstrum, who approached Wagner about staging a live performance of it in the Twin Cities.
Originally, “Showtunes” was to be the nucleus of the concert, supplemented by other, yet to be determined music added. But as the months passed, it became apparent that “Showtunes” would have to share billing with an exciting new project.
Writing “The Bible”
“‘The Bible’ was the project that Ryan, Kurt and I built from the ground up,” said Broder. It began during the Covid lockdown when Wagner began tuning in to Broder playing sets of improvised piano on Instagram. When Broder was able to move his location to Creation Studios in south Minneapolis, Wagner asked him to send “a pile of improvised piano stuff” so he could tweak and truncate it into his own ideas. That became the skeleton of “The Bible.”
As travel restrictions eased, Wagner and his wife came to Minnesota for more direct interaction, again with Olson playing a vital producer’s role. The three started doing jamming sessions at Olson’s studio, eventually incorporating other musicians either on the scene or through streams. Wagner’s worldview and elliptical lyrics are the essence of any Lambchop effort, and so Broder describes the process as akin to “coming up with beats for a rapper,” usually chiseled down and re-adorned by the trove of music Olson had collected, or could be connected to via a phone call. This continual refinement and experimentation continued as the trio bounced back and forth from Minneapolis to Nashville.
That’s the nuts and bolts of the process. But it doesn’t begin to describe the sheer joy and deep trust that was developing among the trio.
The dominant subtext that unites Showtunes and “The Bible” is Wagner’s special hue of melancholy. “He conveys brokenness alongside an unrelenting spirit of, not necessarily hope, but pressing on. Sometimes wonder, even ecstasy, slips through the cracks,” said Nordstrum.
When I suggested to Wagner that the records felt like an attempt to age honestly and yet gracefully at the same time, he replied, “You nailed it. I want to keep a certain amount of integrity about myself as I age, but explore and push for new things I haven’t heard. It is about looking forward instead of backward. It happens to be that working with younger artists is the way that happens.”
Trust and serendipity ruled over the making of The Bible. One day as the trio were working on a mix that became the song “A Major Minor Drag,” Olson suddenly declared, “we need a handbell choir!” to bring it all home. Which was hilarious because Olson is areligious and Broder and Wagner needed rudimentary YouTube videos to learn exactly what handbells sounded like. But Broder was moving to Fridley at the time and one of the first people he meets, his new neighbor happened to the leader of a handbell choir.
Then there is “Little Black Boxes,” a slab of stuttering disco funk irresistible to hip movement and about 160 degrees away from anything you’d associate with Lambchop. “Magic,” Wagner declared when the title of the song is mentioned. We’re in Minneapolis, closed space, no windows, no air conditioning, cigarette smoke, and a bunch of guys on laptops and keyboards, with everybody coming in and out and this jam started and it was the most magical thing I’ve heard in a while. This is Lambchop, right? Yup.” He lets out a boisterous laugh. “You have to have faith in the people you admire, and who admire you. But I knew I had to up my game. We’re in pop territory now and I didn’t want my contribution to screw it up.”
It didn’t. Wagner’s sensibility spruced with voice-altering technology fits perfectly. But the coda to the tale is that when the trio were down in Nashville making late mixes, Olson suddenly declared it needed a little more rubbery bass. “Fields is the deal!” he declared. As in John “Strawberry” Field one of the forces behind the iconic 1979 hit, “Funkytown” out of the Twin Cities. “Ryan just kept texting him and about an hour later, there he is,” Wagner marveled, with a bass line that became the finishing flourish.
When you work with Ryan, there is a standing army,” Broder said. “Ryan has no fear about asking anyone to play. He is so confident in what we are doing that he wills his reality into being. If you’re really excited, people can tell, and feed off of that.”
Taking the city to heart
“That’s Music,” the last song on “The Bible,” is a heartbreaker. The reference to the murder of George Floyd is typically allusive and yet unmistakable. Wagner sings,
We can resist
A man chokes to death
The future is so important
Then, in a veiled reference that could be tied to police reform or reparations, he continues,
I never threw a rock
Or hid my hand
The roof ain’t fixed
Until the ceiling’s dry
“It’s a pretty delicate thing to try to express,” Wagner said, when the lyrics are read to him. There was a vibe there when I visited last summer. I wanted to note it but not be too ham-fisted or self-serving.
“One of the things I was happy about with this record is that it encompasses many of the things about my experiences and feelings there that allowed me to take the city into my heart.”
Not least of these were his collaborators. “It was so important that Andrew and Ryan were a part of this. They were not only the producers of the record, they were the cowriters of all the material, which is something I have never done.” And it extended out from there. After his father and his wife, Wagner thanked the Minneapolis music scene in his liner notes to ‘The Bible.’ “It was inspiring to me to find this whole other world of musicians, first when I went to Berlin and then during my visits to Minneapolis. This record is very much about that community and the trust that we shared.”