International (?) Man of Mystery: Cass McCombs w/Lower Dens @ The Black Cat 7/15/11

Quick note. We’re not going to be reviewing Lower Dens set at this point in time, only because they deserve a lot more space to be discussed. Suffice to say, this band from Baltimore just keeps getting  better, and it won’t be long before they’re  taking over the main stage themselves. And they deserve to. So until then, Lower Dens, you kick ass every time we see you. Come back to DC soon and often!

The only thing visible besides the silhouettes of the assembled musicians is the occasional glint of a flash off a guitar, or the blinking lights of a random effects pedal. The crowd that has assembled listens eagerly as a dark, man shaped shadow explains from the stage how even though McComb’s is somewhat of a transitory musician, Chicago now claims the singer/songwriter as their own. Members of the crowd shout back “Baltimore!” (which is where his Wikipedia page claims he’s based. He’s not.) but the shadow from the stage isn’t hearing it. Instead he continues to run down the list of everything that makes Cass McComb’s music great. He’s the perfect hype man, though McCombs doesn’t really need it. He finishes, the band takes the stage in front of panels of blinking and shifting lights, and as they opening strains of “Buried Alive” hit the audience, it’s as if a bubble closed tight around the room, and we were all suddenly transported somewhere else.

I’m a big fan of transparency with my musicians. All of this “air of mystery” crap usually is just a distraction from the fact that maybe the material that they are trying to sell you isn’t quite as good as they’d like you to think it is. That being the case, the drama it creates is nice to see if it’s done correctly. And apparently nobody can pull it off quit like Cass McCombs. The band’s decision to essentially  be represented only as shadows for the duration of the show was a bold one, but it worked. Anyone’s first instinct would be that this type of presentation would drive a wedge between the band and the audience, but in this case the exact opposite was true.

McComb’s music isn’t impenetrable, but it is dense. Melodically sophisticated, and impeccably performed, a mood is definitely created when you hear these songs on record. On stage, that mood was brought to life. Instead of feeling separated, the audience was pulled deep into the melancholy world inside McCombs head. Pulling mainly from his latest release, Wit’s End, McCombs and his band of shadow men drifted laconically behind the sounds they were creating. The song “County Line” (one of my favorite songs of the year btw) played in this atmosphere felt as if you were paying a visit to some sad place deep inside McComb’s psyche. A tourist of the soul. It was moving, heartfelt and, quite frankly, beautiful. But then so was the majority of the set, which at least touched on material from all 3 of his albums that came before Wit’s End.  

Laid back to perfection, the band only rose up a few times, most notably to deliver a raucous and hair raising version of “Lionkiller” from his Dropping The Writ album. Mellow was the word of the night to be sure but ultimately that was not only fine, it was appropriate. You don’t create worlds with flash and bombast. You do it with themes, hints and shadows. Cass McCombs created his own little world for us Friday night, and it’s one that you can’t help but want to visit as often as you possibly can.


1. Buried Alive
2. Pregnant Pause
3. Harmonia
4. County Line
5. Meet Me Here at Dawn
6. Don't Vote
7. Equinox
8. Lionkiller
9. When the Bible Was Wrote
10. That's That
11. (Unknown)


Head on over to the photo gallery to check ou t the rest of our shots from the show!

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