Concert Review: Cass McCombs @ Union Stage (3/4/19)

Cass McCombs
Cass McCombs (Photo Credit: Silvia Grav)

Like a lightning rod, DC was struck by Cass McCombs for two hours, piling on his lyrical poetry and kick-ass riffs.

Cass McCombs and his band of three performed at Union Stage on March 4th, as part of a tour to promote his 9th album, Tip of the Sphere. Opening was Sam Evian, who also joined Cass on stage for a few songs. The tour runs through April in the U.S. before he heads off to Europe. There’s a flair of rock and punk in the performance, and sometimes a more subdued alt-country sound.

Cass and band kicked off the set with “I Followed The River South To What”, pondering what it’s like in someone else’s shoes, and foreshadowing the long evening (18 songs) with one that kept giving even after the lyrics ended.

Throughout the set, I enjoyed the rock anthems that would have fit in and thrived in the 1970’s, and that the performance was about precision, often letting the music take over. Not many choruses can be found in his songs, but that worked well with the meandering flow of the poetry he shared.

One thing I sort of liked doing was trying to decipher Cass’ thornier lyrics, which told epic tales and built worlds of love and loss. Yet often you had to throw your hands up, because not every puzzle, presented in his conversational, almost spoken word style vocals, was meant to be solved (at least by me).

Next came “The Great Pixley Train Robbery”, and before they started, Cass showed the lengths they were willing to go to get that precision, tuning his guitar with a lengthy concentration that belied the fact (presumably) he was preparing to sing about being a wanted fugitive.

A passionate songwriter and guitarist, Cass started out in San Francisco, releasing his first EP 18 years ago. He was happy to see us on a Monday night, pushed up towards the front at Union Stage, but confided that ‘I wouldn’t go see me on a Monday night.’ His band included a bassist, a drummer and a keyboardist.

Midway through, they played the new “Estrella” with a seriously cool intro. The lyrics of “Only you can rouse me in that way, like music, language was blown out, like pulling down the sea, like plunging into the stars” initially suited my love of a pithy, memorable saying, but on reflection the meaning seems to be floating just out of my grasp.

Next Cass called Sam Evian to the stage for a few songs, and a blur of motion whisked just behind me to pounce on the backstage door (I like to believe he missed his cue while smiling and greeting his fans at the merch table) before finally Sam rushed on with a saxophone in tow. They collectively performed “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide”, which as you can imagine from the title is a sad, lonely song, and nothing makes one feel as alone as the forlorn wail of a saxophone.

“Absentee”, one of the singles from Tip of the Sphere, is another melancholy song about leaving someone behind, which gave the bassist and drummer the chance to step away for a break, and gave the stage a more intimate feel for Cass, Sam and the keyboardist to work with.

After the last haunting note, Sam went back to the merch table, the band all returned to their now lived-in positions, and proceeded to indulge us with a series of (as my notes can asset to) ‘cracking jams’ of ‘pure rock’. I also noted that I really ‘dig the hook’ of “Rounder”. It turns out my notes were right.

They ended with another single from the new album (they played nine of its 11 songs), “Sleeping Volcanoes” is a groovy, funky track with the cheeky lyrics “Help me, Armageddon, help me, Armageddon help me to be calm, help me, Armageddon, help me, Armageddon, and I’ll help you with your song”. I do like this and will pretend my grasp of its meaning is pure.

Cass and band came back for just one song in the encore, “Rancid Girl”, and Sam re-joined them for a proper send off that they all earned.

As we shuffled out of Union Stage, musing and checking our watches, it was clear time had slid past us easily without our knowledge, and it was okay.

I Followed The River South To What
The Great Pixley Train Robbery
Big Wheel
Bum Bum Bum
Morning Star
Medusa’s Outhouse
What Isn’t Nature
Sidewalk Bop After Suicide
The Burning Of The Temple, 2012
Real Life
American Canyon Sutra
In a Chinese Alley
Sleeping Volcanoes

Rancid Girl

Author: Jeremy Bailey

Writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.

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