Cass McCombs Band at the Entry, 02/01/12
No flash photography.
Photos by Reed Fischer
Cass McCombs Band
With Frank Fairfield
7th St. Entry, Minneapolis
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
In a torn flannel shirt over a henley, comfortably worn jeans, and Dr. Marten boots, Cass McCombs looks a lot like a mechanic lately. (Or Eddie Vedder, circa. 1991.) But it's an appropriate guise for a man constantly tinkering under the hood of our imaginations with wide-ranging Americana storytelling. In the low light of the 7th St. Entry -- which McCombs requested be lowered further twice -- he and his four mates let the light from a mystical Abre Candle and some incense burning add to the introspective material that never overtook the heart muscles' BPM in the room.
McCombs' touring partner and old-time music aficionado Frank Fairfield proved to be better-dressed -- sporting a professor-like ensemble of a vintage sportcoat over a v-neck sweater, slacks and a pair of wingtips fit for stomp percussion -- but just as concerned with the mood in the room. The mustachioed musicologist almost immediately transformed a room of skeptics into eager participants as he alternated between fiddle, banjo, and guitar for a collection of spirited "polkas and mazurkas" for the room. His onstage character bore more than a passing similarity to the intensity of the Daniel "I Drink Your Milkshake" Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but his songs suggested he was only thirsty for rye whiskey and catching a peek at the jellyroll on "Li'l Liza Jane."
Fairfield set the table admirably for the well-traveled California-based headliner, who has attached "Band" to his alt-alt country live experience, and it's an appropriate nod to the craftmanship found in every corner of the stage. These four guys -- embodying sensitive, bead-wearing somberness populating coffee shops across our great nation -- were willing to become a unit behind McCombs' lyrics about murder and religion when necessary, or launch into a half-tempo run of Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" to close out "When the Bible Was Wrote" from his 2003 full-length A. True to its recording, paper love letter "Dreams Come True Girl" worked on melting the sentimental hearts in the room at first, but eventually rose to a raw commotion, with keyboardist Will Canzoneri providing dextrous stabs at a vintage organ fed through several effects pedals.
As indicated by the attention to the light in the room, McCombs was dead serious about the dynamics of the room, and he seemed to be holding back annoyance at times that an especially boisterous drunk was shouting at him between songs and chastising the crowd for not "wooing" loud enough. It did little to tarnish the haunting tone of incest on the rolling prairie that came through on "My Sister, My Spouse" (off Catacombs from '09), one of the many adventures in taboo that dot his catalog. Within, he sings: "They say movies deal with archetypes/ You know, I'll try on any mask/ Brother, Son, Husband/ A separate face for separate tasks."
And a willingness to put new masks on back catalog material didn't mean he omitted songs from two albums unveiled last year, the loftily titled Wit's End and Humor Risk. The night began with the driving "Love Thine Enemy" and came to a close with a plodding, Eagles-on-Valium version of "County Line." It proved to move so slow that nearly every turnaround of the lengthy, atmospheric version felt like it might end the song -- and then the band would kick in for another go. Given the amount of sculpting of tone and tempo the band put in to arrive at that point -- and the dimness in the room -- it went over thrillingly. Staring up at the blue-tinted rafters became like a late-night drive through the rural back roads between small towns, something McCombs seems to always have on his countenance.
Personal Bias: This was my second experience with Cass McCombs. The last was an uneven experience at New York's Bowery Ballroom in 2008. He's definitely worked on adding more songs to his repertoire that can fill out a balanced set.
The Crowd: Generally unwilling to "woo" when prompted by our drunken companion.
Overheard: "He's a lot shorter than I thought."
Random Notebook Dump: During Frank Fairfield's set, "Has anyone ordered a Brandy Alexander at the bar yet?"
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