Just before this concert began, four young men wandered on to the QEH stage and started fiddling about with the instruments that stood ready and waiting. They paid no attention to the audience, who carried on chatting. After a minute or two, the quartet turned towards us and launched into their first song. So these weren’t roadies, this was the band.
Such is the relatively unknown quantity that is Cass McCombs, the nomadic American whose elusiveness is all of a piece with wry, heartfelt songs that evoke transience both physical and emotional, and do so in a variety of styles, from folk and country-rock to blues and jazz. The Byrds, the Doors, Leonard Cohen, and Lloyd Cole could all be discerned as reference points.
It’s not that McCombs – a floppy-haired 36-year-old in jeans and trainers – appeared to want to cut himself off. He just had no interest in “Hello, London” niceties and said not a word between songs until right at the end of the concert when he announced that the next one would be their last “jam”.
It was a striking choice of word because the general pattern with McCombs and his fellow band-members – guitarists Daniel Iead and Jon Shaw, and drummer Daniel Allaire – was to carefully lay down the parameters of a song and then loosen the stays and move into more improvisational mode. What resulted were less songs than instrumentals with words, and they had a way of drawing in the listener so subtly but powerfully that their conclusions often seemed to come too soon. There were moments when McCombs risked straying into the realm of inoffensiveness, but then he would pull out a surprise – an injection of funk, a smart lyric, a vocal leap – that kept things interesting.
McCombs is blessed with a highly expressive tenor voice suggestive of hope triumphing over experience, while the overall effectiveness of the evening owed much to the contribution of Iead’s work on slide and lead guitar. The blending of guitar sounds, underpinned by neat work from Allaire, managed to be both mellow and detailed.
High-quality material pours forth from McCombs. His most recent album, 2013’s Big Wheel and Others, was his seventh, and comprised 21 songs spread over two CDs, and they’re all worth their place. Of those that received an outing here, “Angel Blood”, “Brighter!”, and “Morning Star” were highlights that beautifully encapsulated the paradox of feeling that is optimism shot through with melancholy.
This is the most elevated point in McCombs’s career and it’s taken him a while to get here (his first album came out in 2003). He’s very much a musicians’ musician, and he has an impeccable CV as far as acts he has supported goes, among them Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Beach House, and The Walkmen. To rank alongside them he may need to go in for a touch more self-projection. But would something vital be lost in the process?