Cass McCombs At Amoeba, Thursday February 7th 2019
I can’t say I knew very much about Cass McCombs but that’s certainly a name I have heard in many indie circles and after numerous albums, after touring or performing with a long list of famous bands from the Shins to Iron and Wine, the Decemberists, Arcade Fire, Andrew Bird, the War on Drugs,… he was finally playing a set at Amoeba for the release of his 9th album, ‘Tip of the Sphere’, just released on ANTI-Records.
Indie rock doesn’t mean much in terms of genres, and when you have played with so many bands over several decades, you can expect music to be obviously multi-influenced, but McCombs has followed his own path, and if it is not a commercial one, he gave me the impression of someone pursuing a very personal vision. On stage, the trio (Cass on guitar, Dan Horne on bass and Dan Allaire on drums) played a few of the new songs despite the absence of another band member, as Cass said he was missing his keyboard player, Frank LoCrasto.
Starting with the catchy and rhythmic ‘Sleeping Volcanoes, they followed with the pseudo-psychedelic ‘I Followed the River South to What’, which with McCombs’ loud screaming-singing over looping arrangement, also had psychedelic guitars channeling the Grateful Dead. The strangely atmospheric ‘American Canyon Sutra’ sounded unpredictable after these two numbers, as it almost sounded electronic without an electronic table, as bassist Dan Horne was using instead a large gong, while Cass’ spoken words were transforming the song into a sort of stream of consciousness trip. ‘Estrella’ had gentle guitar hooks once again reminiscent of the ‘70s, starting like a Cat Stevens thing, then getting into unexpected turns and a sweet languid ending… I actually read the song was a tribute to Latino artist Juan Gabriel, with a few lines in Spanish. The constant surprises and sonic detours revealed by the songs may have been the overall impression of their short set, although they rocked the set with several older tunes, ‘What Isn’t Nature’ from his 2004 ‘A’ album, ‘Morning Star’ from his 2013 ‘Big Wheel and Others’ and the guitar-less ‘Rancid Girl’ from his previous album ‘Mangy Love’.
Cass McCombs is a follow-your-own-path independent musician who had a brush with success during the release of ‘Mangy Love’, with a television debut on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, several features in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and a nomination as ‘Best Rock Album of the Year’ by Pitchfork. That was about time after a long career, but despite all these acknowledgments, he doesn’t seem to be willing to fit in a radio format, the new song ‘Rounder’, which closes his album as his set at Amoeba, stretches for more than 10 minutes with, once again, a Grateful Dead vibe creeping in through the extended psychedelic guitars.
It’s often difficult to fully appreciate new material at the first listening, especially when this new material is rich, very often the familiar bits stick on you, while the experimental ones leave you clueless, and that was the case for Cass McCombs, as his music was mixing familiarity and novelty with ease. My first exposure to the Californian singer-songwriter may have been his video for the slow yearning sound of ‘Dreams Come True Girl’ featuring Karen Black, during the release of his album ‘Catacombs’, about ten years ago. These new songs sounded like a departure from the previous material, and if the earworms were not immediately obvious – and I am not sure that Cass McCombs is looking for earworms at this point – the bluesy touch, the psychedelic grooves, and McCombs’ signature indie twist were resonating with depth at Amoeba.
Cass McCombs is Playing at The Fonda Theater on March 30th
I Followed the River South to What
American Canyon Sutra
What Isn’t Nature