Cass McCombs. Photo: cassmccombs.com
Being a songwriter who not only released two separate albums in 2011, but also got them both to be ranked––by more than a few publications––as two of the best albums of year, Cass McCombs is something of a marvel who's shown up as a sizable blip on most listeners' radars. He was even deemed "unobtrusively brilliant" by BBC mover and shaker, John Peel. Suffice to say, McCombs definitely seems to be worth his salt. I was nothing less than thrilled when I caught wind he was to play at Kilby. I was skeptical at first, since Kilby Court is far from spacious when it comes to higher profile acts. Little did I know, this would prove to be an advantage to the listeners since it made for more of an intimate (albeit sober) show.
The Kilby garage was almost completely filled by the time the opener, Frank Fairfield, took the stage. Fairfield gained notoriety originally by both being a touring opener for Fleet Foxes two years ago and for being a completely bizarre, one-man folk show. Like, really old folk. Alternating between a fiddle, a banjo and a guitar, Fairfield caught many show-goers off guard with his extraordinary performance. I spent idle pockets of time between songs trying to imagine Fairfield using a cellphone, checking email, or wearing sweat pants––it was virtually impossible. He looked as if he just stepped foot off of the set of a Tennessee Williams play, not a tour van. Even though archival country and blues aren't within the exact same vein as McCombs, Fairfield was a profound and rare opener to witness.
After McCombs and the band equipped their instruments, McCombs calmly greeted the audience and then requested the lights to be dimmed down. This change of stage illumination was a precursor for what the show set out to be––a stratospheric and highbrow set. Once the crowd and stage became a few shades darker, McCombs went into his first song, "Love Thine Enemy." With his unkempt bangs draped in front of his face, McCombs sang with a slight murmur which was both dark and uplifting. The singing style could be best described as an enchanting mix of Leonard Cohen (with less depression) and Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols (with less pretentiousness).
Polyphonically thicker songs, such as "My Sister, My Spouse," sounded more lively and more intricately orchestrated than they did on their recordings. The drums were loud and dry, the bass clear and thick, and the back-up guitarist would sporadically hypnotize the audience via pedal steel guitar. The band wasn't dancing around and trying to please with theatrics. People vying for stage presence would've felt cut short, but it wasn't that kind of set. It circles back to why McCombs wanted the venue to be dark in the first place––it was a show strictly for navel gazing. It worked out better that way. The many closed-eyed and slow bobbing heads of the crowd confirmed it.
Near the tail end of the show, he played the song I wanted to hear the most, "County Line." The looming tower of a lonely ballad sounded just as frightening and sincere as it did on the recording (the music video, however, takes the cake on being the most frightening). This Americana track with memorable falsetto choruses is one which has been acclaimed the most in recent album reviews. This track was possibly practiced the most, and you could tell by the immaculate precision the band pulled it off with. Undeniably and rightfully, it was McComb's ace in the hole. Overall, the gig ended up paying for itself twice. It started off with a dude from a time warp whose soul is probably older than I'll ever live to be, and then segued to another dude from California whose soul is lonelier than I’ll ever possibly be. Unorthodox touring formulas aside, this show ultimately helped tip the scale for 2012 being a more welcoming year thus far.