Live: Cass McCombs Charms About Half of Union Hall

McCombs, live, last year. Photo via neonwar's photostream
McCombs, live, last year. Photo via neonwar's photostream

Cass McCombs Union Hall Saturday, August 1

Until Cass McCombs's latest full-length, Catacombs, found itself tagged with an unexpected Pitchfork Best New Music last month, I had trouble finding people who had heard of him. After three consistently excellent records (my pick hit remains his first, the spectral, unadorned A), he seemed to be destined for a career path parallel to untold legions of No Depression (RIP) singer-songwriters--"best kept secret"-type guys who nurture a devoted, low-level cult their whole lives. But McCombs packed Joe's Pub on Monday night, and at Union Hall on Saturday, for his second NYC show in a week, a sign was taped up outside: "THIS SHOW IS SOLD OUT!"

Union Hall is a cozy place, a basement beneath a bar with about a capacity of 100, and for a moment it seemed that we were all about to celebrate Cass among 98 or so of his faithful. Rambling, offhand stage banter; friends shouting inside jokes from the audience; him playing "I Went to the Hospital" to pin-drop silence--that sort of experience. When I got downstairs, the basement was indeed packed, and he was just wandering onstage, sporting a wide-brimmed white cowboy hat, denim jacket, and jeans, resembling some odd, rail-skinny hybrid of Ron Livingstone and Harland Williams. There were scattered hoots in the audience, but the chatter at the bar failed to dim. McCombs, unfazed, gave a smile and a wave and eased into "Pregnant Pause," a finger-picked breeze off of 2008's Dropping The Writ that feels like one of Paul McCartney's more contemplative solo moments. His band was an endearingly odd collection of people -- the female bassist bore an uncanny resemblance to Robin Wright Penn in Magnolia, while the drummer was a beefy, bearish guy who made lip-biting rock faces while he mouthed along to every single word of every song. It seemed like everyone in the group had known each other for at least ten years.

The set leaned heavily on Catacombs and Dropping The Writ, with only two songs from PREfection ("Equinox" and "City of Brotherly Love") and, alas, nothing from A. The noise from the back never did die down, to the annoyance of the diehards up front, and this dynamic kind of reinforced the bar-band experience. Cass, for his part, never seemed to notice, and it occurred to me that he had probably played hundreds of shows like before, and that this was likely his comfort zone: family and friends up front and a slightly indifferent mass in the back. For the 20 or 30 people who were paying attention, he exuded the same quizzical charisma that comes across on his records, his high little whine of a voice pleading on "City of Brotherly Love" and then choked and theatrical on Catacombs's sardonic "Lionkiller Got Married." By the time the band got to "You Saved My Life," the pirouetting country-rock waltz from Catacombs, the bar chatter was threatening to eclipse the music, and people started throwing irritated glances over their shoulders. Cass played a few more numbers from his new record, closed with an extended and charmingly jammy "Harmonia" -- even the bass player took a solo, for christ's sake -- and, then, abruptly said "goodnight" and left the stage. The lights came up, house music came on, and the drum set was dismantled. There clearly wasn't an encore coming. As we filed out, the halls had been papered with another handwritten, apologetic note: "BAND RAN LATE; BURLESQUE STARTS AT 11PM."


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