Cass McCombs is Unassuming and Full of Nuanced Spontaneity at Great American Music Hall, 11/15/13

Categories: Last Night

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Cass McCombs on Saturday at Great American Music Hall.
Cass McCombs

Meg Baird

Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

Great American Music Hall




Better than:
Folkie protest songs.



"What's up? How you doin'? You alright?"

 Three cursory greetings and then Cass McCombs mostly ignored the crowd until the very end of the set, when he introduced a three-piece band to their audience. A fitting gesture, since the skilled accompaniment handled the mild twang and fluttery vocals of McCombs' songs with grace and nuanced spontaneity all night. Onstage communication comes in a variety of strange dialects. Some ensembles chuck cans and stomp like children. Others whisper into one another's ears as the audience speculates about the secrets exchanged. Cass McCombs nodded, cracked coded smirks and threw sidelong glances to lead his band. They were tight enough to appreciate leaving some moments unplanned, so the subtle forms of communication were on display all night. 



Behind the band, rectangular arrays of softly pulsating lights emanated through white translucent paneling (possibly Christmas lights shining through Styrofoam.) The tempered luminosity suited McCombs' understated set. The performance's dynamic range went from a new down pillow's softness up to the relative firmness of a couch cushion. McCombs was unassuming in baggy blue jeans and flannel. At times, the front lights faded away, leaving only the quartet's silhouetted figures against the soft white backdrop and McCombs' fleeting melodies to fill the Great American Music Hall.



The nomadic and somewhat enigmatic songwriter opened with "Big Wheel," the first song on his most recent album, Big Wheel and Others, a double LP rightfully praised as his most focused and well-rounded release yet. As Ian Port noted in a recent SF Weekly feature, "The one thing McCombs plainly professes to love is playing music," and especially with his friends. At the end of "Big Wheel"'s rolling groove, McCombs raised his eyebrows expectantly towards the drummer and segued seamlessly into a brisk follow-up. The pace quickened, the bassist walked up the neck of his instrument, a pedal steel swelled, and the band soared. Without interview evasiveness or confounding declarations, McCombs settled into the set and obviously loved doing it.

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Neither stiflingly professional nor sloppy, McCombs and his band were just familiar enough with the material to make it feel loose. For solos, McCombs stepped back, looked down and pivoted slightly around one stance as he searched for notes to set free. Sometimes McCombs missed the microphone. He grinned after a barely audible flub. He started nodding the tempo of "Name Written in Water" at the drummer. It started a tad faster than his motion, but felt better for it.



A mid-tempo rock vamp went on and on as McCombs fiddled with his whammy bar. It looked like he was preparing to solo, but the inspiration lapsed, so he motioned the band into an outro instead. It was the last song. Anti-climactic in a way, but the moment was appropriate for an artist compelled to do only as much as he pleases, whether there's an audience or not. Arrested momentum is a symptom of looseness, but McCombs made a case for the approach. His songs breathed freely through their charmingly frayed edges.



Critic's notebook

Opener: Local folk singer Meg Baird sat down in a grey blazer and beige boots with a mahogany guitar balanced on one leg. Her sparse picking and regal chords melded beautifully with an electric guitar's weepy sustain. Somehow, the rich timbre of Baird's voice sounded like the color of her instrument. 



Crowd: The show was well-attended, but the audience trickled in throughout the evening. During Meg Baird's set, attendees mostly sat, drank wine and conversed quietly it all. The atmosphere was full of light clinks and hushed observation, rather than clatter and shouts. A man in a bolo tie checked his iPhone. Someone wondered aloud, "Do you smell pesto?" For a Friday night, it was refreshing.

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