On Saturday, October 15, I saw Lambchop, an alternative country band on Merge Records, at the Psychic Hotline Block Party at the Cat’s Cradle and it was one of my favorite live performances I have seen in the last year. The lineup was stacked with local legends like Truth Club, Indigo De Souza who played a DJ set, Loamlands, and many national artists like Hand Habits, Bartees Strange, AROOJ AFTAB, and more.
This was the second Psychic Hotline Block Party, named after and organized by the record label created and operated by Durham’s very own Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso. It was an all-day event at the Cat’s cradle with performances inside the main room, backroom, and outside on the lawn and there was a pop-up shop inside the Arts Center.
Lambchop closed out the Block Party in the backroom of the Cat’s Cradle. The last time I saw Lambchop, and the first time, was at Merge 30, a festival at the Cat’s Cradle celebrating the legendary North Carolina record label, Merge Record’s 30th Birthday. There the band performed as what seemed like a 20-piece to me, but there may have been seven or eight people on stage (this was in 2019 so my memory of it isn’t super clear).
The band has a very unique sound that is unlike any other. They are able to combine opposite music styles of chamber pop, alt-country, Americana, and slowcore to create surreal sounds that filled the room. Lambchop is made up of rotating members, centered around frontman Kurt Wagner.
Their performance at Psychic Hotline was special as Wagner and Andrew Broder performed as a duo. Lambchop has never had a “core” lineup in the band, it consists of a large and ever-evolving collective of musicians including Matthew McCaughn, William Tyler, and James McNew.
Wagner stood center stage surrounded by darkness, with Broder on the piano to his left. The duo performed many songs from their latest album, “The Bible,” which was released on September 30, 2022, on Merge Records. Before this performance, I had not listened to the album yet, but the minute the performance started I was immediately entranced by Wagner.
The duo opened their set with “His Song is Sung,” the opening track on the new record. The song was heartbreaking as Wagner sang about a visit he had with his father before he passed. I can still hear his voice echoing “no one’s edgier than I” at the end of the song.
Each song flowed effortlessly into one another, Wagner barely taking a break to catch his breath or speak to the audience. The whole audience did not take their eyes off Wagner, the room was silent, there were only a few phones out here and there taking videos, and nobody left their place in front of the stage.
Towards the middle of the set, with my eyes locked on Wagner, shakily signing the lyrics to “Daisy,” I felt tears running down my face. Maybe it was because I only got two hours of sleep the night before, or maybe it was because I had never seen somebody be so vulnerable on stage as I saw Wagner being, but it was probably a mixture of both.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the set was the way Wagner made his voice fill up every empty void in the venue. Not one line he sang fell flat, each word was filled with such intense emotion as it moved through the room.
Usually, when I see shows I feel like all of the energy is on the stage being shared between the members, but here I felt like the piano was swirling around me and Wagner was reaching his hand out to me and signing the words directly to me. The music felt like it moved throughout the room like a gust of wind or a distant memory passing through your mind.
The set also consisted of new songs “A Major Minor Drag” and “That’s Music” and older tunes like “The New Cobweb Summer” from the album “Is a Woman” and “Give It,” a song that isn’t on any of their albums but has a famed indie classic, live video from their performance of it at Merge Records 20th anniversary festival. They closed their set with a fun cover of a song titled “Listening (to Lambchop by myself again)” by Sun June.
I hope Psychic Hotline continues to put on annual Block Parties celebrating local musicians, artists on their label, and artists they look up to.
I feel very fortunate that North Carolina has such a rich music scene that artists, like Sylvan Esso, can get involved in and start a record label and host shows showcasing unique musicians and artists.