By Andrew Hall | 9 January 2012
What a difference seven months can make. When I saw Cass McCombs for the first time in 2011 at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern, he played to a sparse crowd, appeared averse to performing much from Wit’s End, the first of two excellent records he released last year, and repeatedly asked whoever was running lights to adjust their brightness, rendering the stage almost completely dark before admitting that the appearance was “kind of a drag” and bringing them back up to more manageable levels. That set ended in a fine rendition of Catacombs (2009) highlight “Harmonia,” at which point an excited few applauded in hopes of an encore, which someone from McCombs’ quashed quickly by making the hands-across-neck gesture to the sound guy as if to say “Please make them stop, it’s your job.”
That was in May; in December, both nothing and everything about McCombs’ set had changed. While I liked Humor Risk almost as much as its predecessors, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any more of a show this time around. McCombs was still his evasive self, and he still played a substantial back catalog’s worth of music with the same backing band, but McCombs had changed his billing from just his name to “Cass McCombs Band with lights by Jake & Mollie,” and beyond the fact that he was touring a newer album, there was a sense that he had made a real effort to put more into his performance. The aforementioned lights were a wall of blinking whites, almost exactly like the ones in the music video for his song “You Saved My Life,” projected behind the performers, allowing McCombs to hide in plain view while giving the spotlight over to his accompanists, who made reproducing his songs for an audience look effortless.
And unlike his last show here, his newly expanded audience went out of their way to make McCombs’ night anything but. A drunk woman repeatedly shouted “Take your top off!” to her friends’ embarrassment until he asked her kindly to knock it off. The gorgeous, aching “County Line,” possibly my favorite song released last year, prompted the strongest response of anything in the band’s set, but appeared to have little bearing on the setlist, which otherwise omitted singles like “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” in favor of older songs, which for the first time his audience seemed not to know as well as his newer ones. The two sets he played this year rarely repeated songs, drawing a remarkably varied assortment of moments out of his songbook; “You Saved My Life” and “My Sister My Spouse” were gorgeous, understated things, moments from PREfection (2005) and Dropping the Writ (2007) took on newfound cohesion when sandwiched between songs from his newest, making them far more approachable when I returned to them on-record nights later.
Opener White Magic—reduced, at least for this performance, to just member Mira Bilotte—gave one of the sparest performances I’d ever seen. While she opened with a piano-and-voice treatment, she promptly stripped her songs down even further, shifting her accompaniment from the keyboard to a harmonium, then to a single drum, and then sang with no instruments at all, as if every other element were inessential to communicating her ideas. The trickling-in audience was surprisingly receptive, offering hushed applause in exchange for a set that grew less approachable by the minute.
By the end of the night, that audience left largely pleased with what had transpired, as there was less a request for an encore and more of a general sense of completion to McCombs’ set, following a performance of “Equinox” that gave everyone in his band space to be introduced as individuals, have the room turn to them specifically, and take solos, something one doesn’t see all that often from enigmatic singer-songwriter types. If anyone went home unhappy, it was the drunk girl who wouldn’t stop shouting “Take your top off,” who responded to McCombs’ set being over by running backstage and was promptly removed from the venue. As I left for the night, she was sitting outside, repeating “I’ve gotta meet Cass” to herself, fighting back tears; given that the object of her obsession is a musician who still appears to want to be known by nothing other than his songs, it seemed pretty clear that she was going to be out of luck. Fortunately for the rest of us, McCombs is proving himself as one of the most vital singer-songwriter types working right now, and I can confidently say that for the first time ever, he wasn’t “kind of a drag.”