Live: Cass McCombs Lights up the Bowery Ballroom

01/26/2012 12:36 PM |

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The Bowery Ballroom had the feel of a Civil War documentary to it upon entry last night. Old-timey California folk singer Frank Fairfield held the stage, lonely, wailing above his violin about whiskey and whatnot as the crowd silently appreciated. Moving to his virtuosic big finish, his frayed bow moving faster and faster, the room got celebratory, hootin’ and hollerin’ like those classic dance parties in the Titanic’s steerage section. (Let’s see those patricians above-deck match this vibrant ethnic color!) After he took his applause, and walked off with a guitar I didn’t see him play, staff came to switch on massive panels of electric honeycomb lining the back wall of the stage. Pulsing, it gave the full room a trapped-in-amber tone, a dinner by candlelight ambiance. Oh, the dodged intimacy of Cass McCombs concert.

McCombs has been nursing his reputation as a mysterious nomad troubadour for years, by, well, being a mysterious nomad troubadour. As his five-piece band entered the remaining house lights cut, casting them all as silhouettes in the honey glow. They stayed, played in back-lit dark for the whole of the concert. There was no stage banter or acknowledgment of a crowd, even, until the band was introduced during an extended waltz through “County Line” at the end. By seeming to shun the conventions of modern hype and publicity, he’s turned himself into something of an enigma (which happens to be a pretty marketable quantity). He might actually be one.

Though his music falls squarely into the tradition of folk-rock singer/songwriters, there is actually a fairly unique mix of elements combining in his polished live show. Set-opener, “Love Thine Enemy” was a choogling rock number, which achieved a faraway motorik mania as it marched on, groove-locked to the horizon. His band’s chemistry for in-sync repetition made strange, looping work of delicate alt-country. Lap-steel and subtly sick bass lines repeating, reshuffling, slow dancing on forever. This could almost be drone music if it wasn’t so soft and lovely. Though they were hard to see, you could just make out little gestures, minor nods and points cuing each other towards the excellent timing of it all. On rock songs like the powerful “The Same Thing,” they showed a willingness to let rip, also. But always repetition, restatement. When paired with McCombs’ stronger vocal melodies, the affect was hypnotic. In weaker numbers, the line towards watch-check overkill was crossed more than once.

But even more than familiar/unfamiliar songwriting, the lure of Cass McCombs’ music is still that slightly dusty, slightly bittersweet, super world-weary croon. His voice was very high in the sound mix. We never saw his face, but his presence in the room was overpowering. And on something as pretty as “County Line,” extended forever, draped over that elegant bass part, it seemed like he could keep cycling through its heartbreaking melody for days. On the right song, you might not even mind if he did.

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