MJ Lenderman: And the Wind (Live and Loose!)

When MJ Lenderman performs with his backing band, the musicians barely fit on stage. At one point, the Wind ballooned to eight members because the self-professedly “conflict avoidant” frontman couldn’t bear to kick anybody out. Standing with his electric guitar, behind the pedal steel and the occasional keyboard, Lenderman leads from within his band, a fitting stance for a musician who quit basketball because he couldn’t muster a competitive attitude. As a live ensemble—now generally pared back to a five-piece—MJ Lenderman and the Wind continuously rework the Asheville songwriter’s extensive back catalog, adding a vibrancy to his earlier home recordings that paints them as natural B-sides to his exuberant studio debut, 2022’s Boat Songs. On And the Wind (Live and Loose!), a live album composed of recordings from two shows during summer 2023, Lenderman and his band elevate his dreamlike narratives into something joyous, collective, and free.

“The less people hear me talk, the more they can project on me or think I’m a smart guy,” Lenderman said in an interview earlier this year. True to form, the frontman hardly utters a word between songs across the album. When he does speak up, during the minimalist groove that leads into “You Are Every Girl to Me,” it’s only to credit his collaborators—Wednesday bandmate Xandy Chelmis on the pedal steel, Ethan Baechtold on bass, Colin Miller on drums, Jon Samuels (also of Philadelphia bands Friendship and 2nd Grade) on lead guitar, and a special appearance from Lenderman’s girlfriend and Wednesday lead singer Karly Hartzman as a third guitarist and backing vocalist. The band’s chemistry is obvious throughout the record: Chelmis’ pedal steel melts almost imperceptibly into the empty spaces on “Toontown,” lending an extra sigh to Hartzman and Lenderman’s harmony of rodeo clowns. There, as with other Boat Songs cuts like “Under Control,” the band approaches the song as a marathon, not a sprint, Samuels’ riffs carving new paths into familiar rhythms.

Low-Key Indie Rocker MJ Lenderman Wants to Tell a Bigger Story

Many of the songs from 2021’s Ghost of Your Guitar Solo were written around the same time as those on Boat Songs; with a full band behind them, they feel of a piece. Take “Catholic Priest,” a winsome ode to the perceived simplicity of piety and the naivete of youth: In its original form, Lenderman’s voice wavers uneasily, occasionally inaudible and cracking on the high notes, while a frail guitar moves through the song’s rhythms. But live, Lenderman sings with the confidence built from years spent on the road, while Chelmis’s pedal steel breathes new energy into the melodies once lazily plucked by an electric guitar. The same goes for an homage to Jack Nicholson’s courtside Lakers seats, “Live Jack,” whose jokes land even harder when they’re punctuated by dueling guitar solos. “Dan Marino,” the shakily recorded Boat Songs track that might be Lenderman’s most compact piece of poetry, sounds like peak time at the honky tonk from the minute the opening guitars come crashing in. Live and Loose! is a document of friendship, the experience of watching the stories Lenderman wrote in isolation become bigger than their creator.

This transformation from solitude to camaraderie reaches its peak on the live rendition of “Knockin’,” a song originally released as a fuzzy home recording in 2021. The pieces were all there in the initial version—the humor of watching professional golfer John Daly sing a Bob Dylan classic, the knowing sting in his voice as he sings “You’re all I need babe/Yeah, you’ve heard that one before,” the closed loop of Lenderman himself singing “knockin’ on heaven’s door” in the final moments. But the band continued to develop the song at live shows, slowing its pace and doubling its ferocity; no longer constrained by recording equipment or personnel, “Knockin’” is set ablaze. Lenderman’s voice rises to a gravelly roar at the apex, aiming toward the sky as he sings about taking flight. Lenderman finally released a full-band version of “Knockin’” just before the shows featured on Live and Loose!, but the live performance still captures a uniquely communal catharsis.

The album closes with a cover of “Long Black Veil,” a country standard about a man framed for murder, originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell but made famous from live covers like the Band’s 1969 Woodstock performance. Joined by Nashville experimental folk four-piece Styrofoam Winos at his Chicago show, Lenderman sounds at home among friends, his voice lifted by the lilting twang in Lou Turner’s. The song choice is also instructive: “Long Black Veil” reads like an MJ Lenderman song, rooted in gallows humor (Our protagonist can’t confess his alibi: He was sleeping with his neighbor’s wife at the time of the murder!). It also shares Lenderman’s uncanny ability to write songs that are both instantly classic and strangely contemporary, music that only grows from reinterpretation.