Live Review: Cass McCombs

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story / Ilyse Kaplan

photographs /  Philip Cosores

The audience was shoulder to shoulder on Wednesday, November 30th as Cass McCombs took the stage at The Echo.  I’m not sure if the amount of people packed in the small space was shocking because I’ve been somewhat of a homebody lately or if I was shocked to see that amount of people for Cass McCombs.  My hopes of a mellow night swaying back and forth were immediately dashed as I walked in to–what should have been a quiet set–from the lustrous White Magic, but the sold out crowd was drowning out her lovely voice that sang sweet acapella melodies.  This banter made the performance nearly unwatchable and thus we decided to retreat to the smoking area which shockingly held about thirty more people (to put it in perspective, the venue holds about 250 people uncomfortably and the inside room was filled completely).
I said a silent prayer, hoping the concert experience I’d imagined would still play out as my brain wanted when Cass McCombs entered the stage.  The prayer was soon followed by the group behind me audibly mistaking a Yoko Ono song for Dan Deacon but before I could bow my head in shame, the stage completely darkened and a replica of the gold lit background a couple danced in front of in McCombs’ “You Saved My Life” video appeared.  Unlike most musicians who raise the audience’s excitement by entering the stage in pitch black and having the lights rise as fans cheer, Cass McCombs and his band entered in the darkness and simply began to play, “My Master.”

From the first note strummed, Mr. McCombs’ set was haunting.  He silenced the drunken banter and the set I’d hoped for silenced my initial negative attitude.  With two albums released this year (Wits End and Humor Writ), the San Francisco dweller had much new material to share with the LA crowd though he drew mostly from his earlier work.  As I glanced at the audience, I noticed the die-hard fans were pleased he was playing early work as they mouthed the words.  I caught myself doing the same as “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” was played second.
With little chord progression and simple melodic tones backed only by light drums and poetic lyrics, McCombs seems almost like a grunge version of Neil Young.  He has the droning instrumentals of a Mazzy Star but husk voice of Young.  One would think the light chord progression and complete darkness on stage would make for a boring show but McCombs has a way of transporting the audience.  Music of the past two years has been saturated by the term “chill-wave,” I would not say McCombs fits in that category but he certainly made the audience “chill out” as opposed to the restlessness displayed during White Magic’s set.  The crowd was feeling the music in their entire bodies and through my initial disdain for some of the crowd (due to conversations overheard), came the feeling that we were one.  I felt like the Grinch when his heart turns from two-sizes to small to normal size.  Then came the Grinch-like realizations accented by the darkness of the stage, I realized the feeling McCombs wanted to get across.  It was not about us (the audience) or him (the performer) but simply about the music coming from the speakers.  Sadly, it is rare to experience the feeling that it is just about the music anymore in this age of social media and flailing cell phones you-tubing.  It was refreshing for the artist to widdle it down for us so we did not need to ask as politely as possible to “stop taking pictures with your iPhone please”.
McCombs closed the show with a rocking version of “I Can Not Lie,” bringing an extra guitarist on stage.  It was the loudest song played in The Echo that night yet McCombs still seemed to end the show as subtly as he began, by simply walking back off the stage.  As concert goers exited the venue, the wind howled with record-breaking speed and I wondered if Cass McCombs had been drowning it out the whole show, or if I was too mesmerized to hear it.

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