Live Music + Gig Reviews

Cass McCombs @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

13 January 2014

Cass McCombs This show was a mixed bag of highs and lows; for every moment of frustration there was a moment of bliss. Which made it worth 10 times most singer/songwriter shows.

From the very beginning, Cass McCombs is completely unassuming – the band members tune their instruments with the lights on, he barely mumbles a “Hello” and they just start playing. No build up, no fuss.

This is pretty much a constant for the night, during which there are almost no words, no interaction or visible chemistry between the band. Even McCombs’ look, with a plaid shirt, trainers and curtained hair, is more that of a shy teenager than that of a brilliant songwriter. Luckily for us, he really is the latter, because the gig is a true pleasure – it’s not that he doesn’t care, he simply has no time for nonsense.

From the first chords of Big Wheel, the tone is set. His clear, low voice, sometimes attractively torn, chimes perfectly with his guitar and his backing trio. His songs sound better than ever in the wonderful acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The set list is a neat balance of songs from 2013’s Big Wheel And Others, and hits from previous works, such as Love Thine Enemy, in which the robust bass and drum lines shine with a contagious strength, and Dreams Come True Girl. There’s a truly beautiful moment when the lights go off and the fantastic There Can Be Only One fills the room. A much rockier second half leads him to indulge in some eccentric musical ramblings, such as the ending of the mesmerising Lionkiller, which ended up sounding almost Celtic.

Despite his reluctance to engage with them, McCombs’ fans are devoted, and they’re plentiful in number. There’s a strange feeling to tonight’s show though; the venue isn’t the most intimate, and the atmosphere is diluted somewhat; it’s as if attendees were afraid to cheer (almost not to disturb him?) despite it being clear they want to.

The atmosphere changes just in time for the encore, though; after a quick goodbye, he returned to play, rather predictably, County Line. All faith was restored as the room turns dead silent and, for the whole duration, both audience and singer had the kind of sentimental communion that the former had probably been waiting for throughout. And it just was magical. The night was far from black or white, but Cass McCombs’ genius is obvious. You just can’t get enough, yet you can’t quite point your finger at why.

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