Cass McCombs may be something of a songwriting genius, but his elevated mind state is a bit of a handicap onstage. Overthinking his every step, he loses his audience--and the unhurried quirkiness that fill his albums--in the process. His heady, calculated brand of rock is ideal over the radio, but the live sound didn't translate into much of a show.
For starters, opener Frank Fairfield might have stolen it. The one-man band had the look of Depression-era America down solid, dressed in a well-worn wool blazer and equally worn-in wingtips. Playing old-timey, traditional folk on an assortment of vintage string instruments--including an old banjo that appeared to be the actual prototype--Fairfield was a lively player and a hell of a lot of fun. His last song, "Rye Whiskey," was a foot-stomping storm of fiddle that nearly destroyed his bow and had the sparse crowd whooping as he left stage.
The Tractor was as primed as it was going to get, but by the time McCombs and his band of four arrived onstage, you could already feel the weight of his awkwardness. Someone yelled out, "Happy Mother's Day!" while the band was setting up, and McCombs just shrugged, as if the random comment didn't fit into his plans for the evening. The group played a few songs before the singer asked for the lights to be turned down, which he continued to request again and again throughout the show. The band seemed unfazed by the singer's need for total darkness, but they also seemed downright bored, and the remaining set of droning, repetitive music put nearly everyone in attendance in a catatonic state.
It was a total downer. Which isn't surprising if you're a fan of his work (and I am), but expectations run a little different when a tour comes through town. If McCombs had thrown us a bone--had more audience interaction, shared a joke with his band, genuinely laughed, even--a little personality could have overridden the blah. In the end, McCombs seemed tired, weird, and just not that into it.
Overheard at the show: "Can you turn these lights down anymore? It's Mother's Day, and it's a drag." --Cass McCombs.
The scene: Lots of men in their 30s, intellectual, emo types. Mellow, well-mannered crowd.
Random notebook musing: Cass McCombs and Elliott Smith--separated at birth?