Cass McCombs makes you feel good about feeling bad.
Somewhere along the line a cheery cabal of pop musicians got together and agreed that music’s role in contemporary society was to cheer people up. Upbeat songs in major chords with saccharine sweet lyrics are there to make you feel bad about feeling down. You should be ever optimistic. Didn’t you know?
Apparently McCombs didn’t get the memo. The wanderlust and proud scorpio isn’t having any of that shit, because in a fucked up world of heartache and alienation where the only certainty is the neverending road ahead, you should embrace melancholy.
The mantra that seethes beneath the surface of Cass McComb’s music is life can be tough and what solace you get in this world must be hard won.
For the first thirty minutes of his set at the Echo, McCombs and his backing quartet walk a tight line between smoldering fury and restraint. There’s a quiet outrage on stage and you can’t really see it because McCombs plays with no spotlight.
On the wall behind him, glitching ambient fixtures back light the band. From up front there’s nothing to illuminate Cass’ face except the peripheral glow from behind. The ambience is fitting as McCombs halcyon moan flits through laments on the false warmth of nostalgia and dark musings as to the fate that awaits us all down the long, wide highway.
It takes a brave man to scorn the comfort of artificial light and tread into the uncertainty of darkness. McCombs has made a life wandering through just such a metaphorical gloom. It fits him. Spooky, silky folk emanates from McCombs and Company in a long desert dirge.
Above the shadowed intrigue is a powerful blend of soft and reverent music. Metallic garnishes from steel lap guitar and swirls of backing synth surround McCombs’ detached voice in a mix that sounds like Emerson, Lake & Palmer gone country.
For the first seven songs, the crowd stands quiet and listless in apparent reflection of the stoic mode set on stage. Then they play “County Line.”
“County Line” is a morose and beautiful lament that comes as close as McCombs ever does to an accessible single. Figures in the audience shift and one loud voice in the back echoes Cass’ “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoas.”
With the weight of “Crowd-Pleasing-Single” off their shoulders like a dark spell, the band lights into the second half of their show. Complete with long, playful grooves and ruminations on the fucked state of the American military complex via Bradley Manning, McCombs invites the audience to share in some of that hard won happiness he indulges in.
Most times when you see a concert the band will open strong. Performers use high energy to get the audience on board and if you buy in to their magnetism, they might just play a slow number in the middle of the show to bare some of their soul for you.
With Cass McCombs you have to earn his energy and warmth by enduring his melancholy. If you can weather the tumultuous doldrums at the top, he may just show you the happiness that is just holding on. And, in the end, it’s worth it.