Monday, July 27, 2009

Caught very live: Cass McCombs, Joe's Pub

Cass McCombs, who's never been through NYC with the same band twice, played tonight at Joe's with what was undoubtedly his best-looking assemblage yet, including local all-stars Andy Macleod (drums — worth pointing out as Andy plays everything, and well, in his particular idiom) and Melanie Moser (keybs, vox, sparkly dress).

It was all about Cass though. The scorpio (if they got the date right) has been one of Earth's best songwriters since he burst from some Grecian forehead earlier this decade, but his newest, the spacious Catacombs — very good, not nearly his best yet aligned perfectly in constellation with his others — arrives in tune with some vibey awareness tipping point about his persistent mercurial excellence. Last August he played the South Street Seaport (great venue, free show) to a middling crowd (by the by, he had an entirely different band, looked pulled from a Tennessee chain gang in the ’30s), and it seemed he was just destined to live in the interstices. Less than a year later and it feels like everybody's talking. Halleluwah. For people who try to make sense of life through the lens of music, McCombs's five records so far are like an observatory on top of an old volcano in Hawaii. And you can step right up to the telescope and have a look, and see whatever you see.

Onstage McCombs moves within a studied modesty so note-perfect that it couldn't be contrived; he's never seemed uncomfortable up there, but I couldn't remember if I'd ever heard him really say anything directly to the audience before. (He shyly removed his jacket at one point, and by commenting on it, primed the crowd to do its best impersonation of an ’80s sit-com studio audience.) His set tonight omitted "Deseret," the 21st century's secret-most-beautiful song, but included many of the rest, including a coolly tamped-down "City of Brotherly Love" and a sweet "Crick in My Neck," with McCombs — also a judicious handler of space and time on the guitar — spraying chord-arrows through the veil.

The only thing missing from tonight's gig was the low-light anarchic radiance of Karen Black: