LIVE MUSIC: Cass McCombs @ Ottobar - 1/21/12

It’s important to note that taking in a performance by Cass McCombs isn’t so much simply about seeing the man performing his songs as it is engaging in an experience. Saturday night in Baltimore that experience was akin to a post-surgery, anesthetic fog, where the real world around you frequently fails to register, but those moments where the world does manage to slip through are, if anything, entirely and utterly pleasing. And this, at least if you’re Cass McCombs, is a good thing.

Cass McCombs @ Ottobar in Baltimore, MDDespite the fact that he is touring behind his second 2011 album, Humor Risk, the majority of that record, and the one that came before it were largely ignored by McCombs and his band. The set began with a druggy rendition of “Love Thine Enemy”, the opening track of Humor Risk, but from there took a sharp plunge into the dark, somewhat unexplored corners of McCombs catalog. The close to 90 minute performance weaved in and out of tracks from his earlier works. Songs from 2003’s A, and 2009’s Catacombs (you can see him perform “My Sister, My Spouse” from the show in the video below) and 2005’s Not The Way, dominated a pleasingly lethargic and moody set whose highlight seemed to be that it was simply happening.

Employing the same backlit, lite-brite stage setup that he used when he played at The Black Cat here in DC last summer, McCombs forced the audience to consider the music first and foremost. To be clear, it wasn’t a complete removal of the performers from the equation. The visual of a starkly silhouetted McCombs and his band-mates against a subtly shifting array of yellow lights remains one of the more striking visuals you are likely to see at a show these days. But by remaining, for the most part, hidden for the entirety of the set, McCombs and his band (which, btw, was comprised of completely different members this time around) forced the audience to make a choice: Experience an evening of music by engaging in JUST the music, or don’t.  

Depending on what side of that argument you fall determines how one would view not just Saturday night’s performance, but any performance by Cass McCombs. Personally, I appreciate integrity and overwhelming belief in the quality of his material. I came to see Cass McCombs the musician perform, not Cass McCombs, author of Humor Risk or “County Line”. I’ve bought into the tiny universe that he’s created and am eager, at any point, to see what he’s able to pull forth from its dark matter. And judging from the response of the crowd Saturday night, I’m not the only one either. Sure there were those who retreated from the slow spectacle unfolding before them, but  for the most part the audience was hip to what was going down and stood enthralled by a set that spoke more to our need for artistic sustenance than it did our need for entertainment.
Rock amongst the shadows
All of that having been said, the set did end with possibly the most satisfying song in McCombs catalog: “County Line”. Widely considered the best single of 2010, “County Line” is a sort of weird aberrant peak in a body of work that already reaches, for and meets, an incredibly high standard. Just when you thought McCombs couldn’t go higher, BOOM, there it was. A song that dropped like a bomb over the dance-soaked (not that that’s a bad thing) musical landscape of last year and transported everyone back to a mid 70’s Laurel Canyon crash pad pulled straight out of The Dude’s deepest, darkest fantasies.
Tempo slowed to match the pace of the evening before it, “County Line” proved to be less the hit that everyone was waiting to hear, than the logical end to our collective journey, evidence even though he might not get you there they way you thought you he would, Cass McCombs is always going to do his best to make sure you wind up exactly where you wanted to.

Were you at Ottobar on Saturday? Tell us what you thought in the comments below!

Check out the rest of our shots from the show right here!


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