Though Cass McCombs performed a fair split of new and old tunes in Echo Park on Sunday night, the defining moment of the set came before the final song, and only because of what song he didn’t play. Backed by three supporting musicians, including Darker My Love bassist Rob Barbato, McCombs announced that he had come to his last number for the evening. An uninspired chorus of faint female voices seemed to believe this would be, and should be, the country-tinged beauty “You Saved My Life”. McCombs, though, had different ideas and said it was going to be a new composition, and as it played out, it was the only “rocker” of the slow-paced set. Of course, the entire performance was played without percussion or electric instruments, usually an indicator that the music would be performed within the limitations of coffee-house rock. There was also the setting of a classroom, with the venue being the LA chapter of Dave Eggers 826 Valencia creative writing school.
The song must have been a mere two minutes long. When it concluded , the singer half-apologized for it, saying it would sound better the next night when they would play with their drummer. The crowd remained seated, as if anticipating McCombs would surprise them by playing the song they liked, and weakly demanded, after-all.
Nope. That was the end.
The show was a part of Filter’s Culture Collide Festival, which rounded-up a surprisingly solid lineup of artists for four days of daytime events and night shows in the neighborhood’s selection of venues. An affordable wristband could get you into sets from Tokyo Police Club, Monotonix, White Lies, and many more, with The Echo, Echoplex, and Spaceland among the participating venues. McCombs was one of the many Americans on the bill, but as the conclusion of his set reinforced, McCombs doesn’t have to look far to take part in cultures colliding. In fact, he made a comment about being happy to take part in the benefit and that he didn’t know who it was benefiting. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. I still don’t know if there was a benefit, either, so I’m with you Mr. McCombs!
I had previously seen him open for Modest Mouse at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, more than five years prior and he was not the warmest or most comfortable of performers then, either. But that’s why we call them artists and not performers. Some of them, at least.
Cass McCombs’ live show seems more like a bi-product of being a musician than his chosen medium for artistic interaction, with McCombs as a painter of of pop music atmospheres, creating mood and texture with his simply-arranged songs that are often startling in their beauty and piercing in their lyrical insight. He is not a natural-born rockstar and doesn’t pretend to be, but if he manages to entertain folks while unfolding some songs for them, well, that is a bonus. Thus this set, as McCombs has been reported to be working on his next album, seemed like a practice run for new material more than anything else, even the possible charity. But also note that McCombs has a number of albums and though a few songs seemed new, including a tune about a doll and the opener with the refrain of “buried alive”, this could be a false assumption made because no one there seemed particularly familiar with his work and McCombs is not the talkative type, only occasionally offering a song title. In the Bay Area or maybe New York, the set would have killed, with hordes rabid fans looking to hear new music from their beloved artists. The casual streets of LA are less involved and embracing, epitomized by music-festival folk who check out a sleepy acoustic set because they like that one slow song with the slide-guitar. Their disappointment was warranted, but honestly, it didn’t make the set any less enjoyable.
Yeah, the only cultures colliding during this set were that of the slightly awkward artist against the paradigm of the American consumer, which manifested as these 50 or so young, mostly white people. The contingent that was a little more familiar with the catalogue of Cass McCombs recognized the night’s third number, “Dreams Come-True Girl”, earning a gasp from a few reactionary ladies. Another Catacombs standout made the latter part of the set, “Prima Donna”, which played to a less involved group, but still sounded as simple and sweet as the album version. But no matter how touching a heartfelt version of “You Saved My Life” might have seemed, the crowd got something much better in the exquisite recreation of Dropping the Writ’s “Windfall”, which allowed the band to show off with mirrored guitar and keyboard leads. The reluctant ringleader could be caught appreciating the delicate notes between his versus.
It is baffling that even after getting substantial press and critical acclaim for last years Catacombs, Cass McCombs still plays in front of tiny crowds, sits way down on a festival bill where the biggest band is Tokyo Police Club, and is about the most difficult artist to find contact information for as there is. He has returned to the indie-consciousness when we all thought he had probably seen his best days after A and previously mentioned stints touring with artists like Modest Mouse. But after PreFection and Dropping the Writ failed to excite much of anybody, Catacombs stunned plenty of folks with its fragile, girl-group inspired heartbreakers; a contrast with A’s slow-burning, what-if -Nico-and-Reed-were-the-same-person kind of tunes that initially brought him acclaim. Some people were made for the spotlight, but McCombs seems satisfied being a working musician.
And maybe he played “You Saved My Life” the next day when he was scheduled to appear at the wrap-up of Cultures Collide, a full-on block party. Still, you should know what you are going to see when you check out Cass McCombs perform: an artist sharing his craft, not a performer giving you the song and dance and drama that you may think your 15 bucks deserves. With these expectations, you might find yourself quietly enjoying one of the best songwriters working today.