Show Review: Cass McCombs – Live @ The Earl 01/19/12

Photos by Matt Rosenthal taken at McCombs’ show in New Orleans on January 16, 2012.
Courtesy of www.barryfest.com

Walking into the Earl on Thursday night, I had the odd feeling that I had accidentally wandered up onto a back porch in some hinterland – sure, I was in the same dank, smoky bar where I’ve whiled away many a night, but the man on stage boasted a warble and a fashion sense that seemed about a century his elder. The man’s name was Frank Fairfield, and he was one-man bluegrass explosion who played the fiddle like it was trying to run away from him. All too often, opening acts underwhelm because they’re too similar to, and less refined than, the main act, and thus come off like a photocopy of a photocopy. As the opener for Cass McCombs, a singer-songwriter in the vein of Elliot Smith, however, Fairfield’s fingerpicked ditties about farmers and boll weevils stood in stark contrast to McCombs’ songs of heartache and loss. And as he explained the influence of reconstruction era musicians on his work, swayed about his stool, and stomped his beats into the floor, I couldn’t help but think he’d be doing this whether anyone was there to listen or not, and then smile and admire the hell out of him for it.

Given his somewhat niche appeal, though, it’s likely that few, if any, were there strictly for Fairfield, and as we waited for McCombs to take stage, the room continued to grow in number and anticipation. But even though the room was fairly full by show time, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people knew exactly what to expect from the night. To be sure, McCombs is nothing if not an enigmatic figure – interestingly enough, there was a period of time when he would do neither phone nor in-person interviews, demanding instead to answer questions via hand-written letters. In the past year, Cass McCombs has released two full-length albums – striking first in April with Wit’s End and closing out the year with Humor Risk – both of which have gained him notoriety not just for their strength and consistency, but also very their intensely introspective and downcast tone. At different times and by different folks, they’ve been called dire, mopy and creepy as hell, and have provoked more than a couple of comments about their infatuation with severe unrequited love. And Wit’s End, specifically, has been called his “loveliest, darkest, and oddest record to date.”

So, after reading interviews with and reviews of McCombs – who has been compared to other notably bleak artist like Elliot Smith, and oddly enough, even Edgar Allen Poe – I halfway anticipated that I was going to spend the evening watching an archetypal tortured artist, all mumbles and shoegaze. The Cass McCombs that showed up for the show, however, wasn’t quite the reclusive singer/songwriter I’d been expecting – far from it. In fact, by the time the band launched into a full-on cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” – they obviously knew their audience – I was certain that, as an artist, McCombs is at least as much Ryan Adams as Nick Drake, capable of lighthearted southern rockers as well as moody, meditative dirges on meaninglessness and death.

Although Thursday night’s show definitely displayed both the introverted and extroverted sides of his songwriter persona – actually, that duality is one thing that made his show particularly engaging – McCombs decision to open the night with “Prima Donna”, a track from 2009’s Catacombs, was nonetheless questionable. The song’s repetitive chord structure, understated, egg-shaker led percussion, and subtle vocal stylings didn’t exactly command the room’s attention, and would’ve been a better fit somewhere in the middle of the band’s set. Luckily, though, this was probably the most mellow moment of the evening, as the band built from here towards the relatively rocking pairing of Humor Risk’s “Love Thy Enemy” and the unreleased track “Bradley Manning”, before launching head first into “Rambling Man” and then easing the crowd back towards bed with County Line, the lead track and first single from Wit’s End.

Aside from being a recluse, going into the show I had also mistakenly pegged McCombs as the type of artist who believes invariably in the strength and power of his recorded arrangements. Accordingly, I expected that he would probably shy away from experimentation and jamming, and would tend not to rock the boat on his original compositions. However, McCombs seemed totally unafraid to let his sense of play shine through and, especially on the fan-favorite “Dream-Comes-True-Girl” – a song, I might add, that is a much better than it’s name may suggest – allowed his band to cut loose and really explore the area. And as I walked out into the unseasonably warm winter night, I realized that this might be the best way to sum up McCombs as an artist. Even though he’s known for his outright sincerity and strength as a songwriter and wordsmith, and is often pigeonholed as gloomy and downcast, he’s also not afraid to let his act hang a little rough around the edges, and to cut loose and have a little fun.

Set List – Cass McCombs @ The Earl, Jan 19, 2012

  1. Prima Donna (Catacombs)
  2. Robin Egg Blue (Humor Risk)
  3. My Sister My Spouse (Catacombs)
  4. Hermit’s Cave (Wit’s End)
  5. Dreams-Come-True-Girl (Catacombs)
  6. Love Thy Enemy (Humor Risk)
  7. Bradley Manning (Unreleased)
  8. Equinox (PREfection)
  9. Aids in Africa
  10. Ramblin’ Man
  11. County Line
  12. Bobby, King of Boy’s Town

* photos by Matt Rosenthal, courtesy of www.barryfest.com

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