Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Show review: Cass McCombs at Lincoln Hall, 1/29

By Andrew Hertzberg

(Photo Credit: Shannon Aliza)
Cass McCombs has a certain RIYL quality that I associate with the burgeoning mid-2000s Pitchfork bumped indie rock scene: The Decemberists, Okkervil River, Devotchka. More or less, generally innocuous yet intelligent music balancing the tightrope between the theatrical and grandiose. After Sunday night’s performance at Lincoln Hall, it's safe to say that McCombs is still riding that wave, but a few more associations came to light in the live show.

McCombs is a modern troubadour. He’s lived all over the country, including a stay in Chicago. His nomadic lifestyle has no doubt inspired the off-the-beaten-path tales of his lyrics. As any proper artist, he’s lived down and out himself, that first-hand experience relaying even more depth to his stories. The set kicked off with ”Love Thine Enemy,” the five-piece band lined up in front of a wall of twinkling light, obscuring the band members' faces. As Lincoln Hall masquerades as an intimate venue within a large space, every single sound the band made could be heard, which worked more for than against the band considering the attention to detail. Cass seemed to hope it was louder, but as the place was only two-thirds full anyway, full amplification wasn’t needed.

Throughout the rest of the set, Cass reminded me of songwriters ranging from Leonard Cohen to Elliott Smith, with even a little Lou Reed from the Velvets' more mild-mannered days. Midway through the set the group went into "Buried Alive," one of my favorites from last year’s Wit’s End. The staccato keyboard combined with the slow tempo foreboding and the sparse instrumentation otherwise and unconventional chord progression adds to the ominousness. The standout from the night came a few songs later with "Dreams Come True Girl" from 2009’s Catacombs. It started off reminding me a bit too much like Spandau Ballet’s "True," until keyboardist Will Canzoneri unleashed quite the unexpected solo, hitting every octave in front of him, before the entire song dissolved into chaos. This was followed by a newer track "Bradley Manning," which sympathizes with the US soldier who was bullied in the army because of his homosexuality and eventually revealed top secret information to Wikileaks. McCombs does a great job expressing a point of view which is (unfortunately) not often heard.

The set grew a bit tired towards the end, and the slight burst of energy felt in the middle wouldn’t find its way back. The snail paced "County Line" brought to mind Bon Iver’s recent critically-acclaimed album, and thus it elicited the same ennui from me: the Middle America imagery and Phil Collins vibe just gets a bit too cheesy and sentimental. The set closed (apparently a bit abruptly from what appeared to be a confused expression from McCombs; remember, faces were difficult to make out) with "Harmonia," each band member getting their turn to solo, although not quite the typical rock show freak out that that image may imply. Alas, a peaceful ending to a rather peaceful set, with Cass and his gang off again to roam the country.

(Photo Credit: Shannon Aliza)
To warm up the band was certainly one of the more unique openers I’ve seen lately. You could tell me that Frank Fairfield found a time machine in the 1890s, arrived here yesterday and I’d really have no reason not to believe you. He looks like an anachronism in 2012 and his music conveys that just as much as his well-worn clothes and instruments imply. Alternating between fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar, Fairfield offered the "Hesitating Blues," "Poor Benny," "Railroad Bill," and some ramblings about a "Bo Weevil." I can’t say I’m much one for Appalachian folk tales, but the guy is a solid player and he stamps his foot just as hard as any punk rock drummer on the kick. Gabriel Wallace followed with a reading of his obscure and mostly comical (and often vulgar) poetry. You can find his work in copies of the Land Line. Quite the unexpected opening, but as McCombs’ music is equal parts folk and poetry, it was certainly appropriate.


Check out more show reviews:
Bullied by Strings at Underground Lounge
Fujiya & Miyagi, YAWN at Lincoln Hall
Chairlift, Class Actress, Polica at Schubas
Close Hits, Rambos at the Burlington
Color Card, Mines, Famous Laughs at the Empty Bottle

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