If McCombs oozes cool from his pores on record, it fairly pours from all of his orifices live. True, he’s not much of a showman; at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on a cold Sunday night, he seemed content to let the music and his lyrics do the talking, aside from the occasional thank you and responding to a fan by saying “It’s good to be back,” he let his laid-back but literate songs speak for him.
With the only lighting provided by a backlit screen that brought to mind a digital Lite-Brite, McCombs and his talented backing quartet sashayed through a baker’s dozen of expansive numbers that gave lots of room for his unaffected baritone, and expert solos by his plaid-clad backing group, which included plenty of pedal steel and ’70s soul keyboard parts plunked out on a Hohner Clavinet D6. Capable drum and bass parts propelled the songs along with a laidback groove that let his simple but moving songs grow and breathe.
McCombs’ set began with the stellar single “Love Thine Enemy” from his latest release, Humor Risk, an exemplary composition that wore his world-weary philosophy on his striped sleeves. His band mined a Rolling Stones chugga-chugga guitar riff to the chorus “Satan Is My Toy, Jesus is My Boy,” and “Home On The Range” somehow melded the chords from Peter Frampton’s “Show Me The Way” and Metallica’s “Unforgiven” into a compelling combination with dynamic choruses. On “Buried Alive,” he was at his most George Harrison-esque, bringing to mind The Clientele performing the quiet Beatle’s “Something” from Abbey Road, but his vocals on “Angel Blood” almost exceeded the Harrison comparison and became Dylanesque.
McCombs’ gonna “Bury Mary” used a rocking rhythm, and his falsetto turned the bitter “heading home to no one” anthem “County Line” into a blue-eyed soul classic. The closer, “Harmonia” provided lots of room for his band to stretch their legs and showcase their instrumental expertise. Although he seemed disappointed with his drummer that the song ended with a whimper as opposed to a bang, and they didn’t supply an encore, McCombs had no reason to feel like he had let anyone down.
Not only did he hold the audience’s attention rapt, séance-like, but some couples close to the stage were actually slow-dancing throughout.
Cass McCombs only scratched the surface of his already impressive body of work during this show, but the clever lyrics, charming delivery and stellar voice and musicianship made this a performance not to be missed. He’s an artist on the verge of something great, someone to see the next time he comes to town.
The evening began with the folksy vibrato-laden tenor musings of the mustachioed Frank Fairfield, who brought to mind an old timey barbershop quartet member in appearance but appeared downright Willy Porter-like in terms of his fluid dexterity on the banjo and acoustic guitar. Fairfield was followed by a gentleman who read a few short and long poems, and when one begins with a piece called “Shitty Poems,” any semi-literate audience must wonder what they’re in for. Some of his rhyming poems would have been better suited for punk rock songs, especially the closer, “Don’t Talk To Me About The Cutting Room Floor.” Aside from that, it was hard to tell if the laughter from his pieces on puppies and eating disorders were sympathetic or embarrassed on his behalf.
Cass McCombs at Lincoln Hall on Jan. 29, 2012 Setlist:
- “Love Thine Enemy”
- “Satan Is My Toy”
- “Home Out On the Range”
- “Prima Donna”
- “Buried Alive”
- “Angel Blood”
- “My Sister, My Spouse”
- “Dreams Come True Girl”
- “Bradley Manning”
- “Your Mother and Father”
- “Bury Mary”
- “County Line”