An aura of mystery is difficult to cultivate, but even harder to sustain. California-born singer-songwriter Cass McCombs must know this, but, judging from his tight, proficient set at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night, it’s not something he’s particularly worried about. Mystery comes easily to him. Backlit by a large display of twinkling lights, McCombs and his backing band were bathed in darkness for the entirety of the show and remained isolated from each other for the duration, occasionally nodding for the stray solo cue, their silhouettes stoic and removed. It would’ve felt stale and labored if the songs themselves weren’t so hypnotic, engulfing the tightly packed room in a delicate drone of ambiguity that simultaneously let’s you in while pushing you away.
Any discussion about McCombs usually contains the word “enigmatic” or some variation on the phrase “inscrutable lyrics.” It’s not that his songs are particularly complicated or dense—in fact, many of the arrangements on his dark, brooding 2011 album, Wit’s End, are sparse, minimal folk tunes stretched out into Gothic ballads—it’s that his lyrics are written and delivered in a way that defies easy parsing. It’s as if every line ends with both a question mark and an ellipsis.
If what I’m describing sounds like homework, that’s too bad, ’cause McCombs is a writer—like Leonard Cohen or Bill Callahan—who gets better, richer and deeper if you’re willing to do the work. He’s ready to meet you halfway by packing his songs with violent, almost noir-ish narratives, morbid bits of humor and sweet, lullaby-like melodies, but much of the enjoyment in his work comes from the kind of close listening that requires an open ear and a closed Web-browser. Luckily most of the crowd last night came ready for this type of hushed, reverential experience, with the jostling and cat-calling kept to a minimum. The lone moment of palpable excitement came during the band’s last song, the spiteful, despair-filled slow-jam “County Line,” which had everyone swooning at terse lines like, “You never even tried to love me.”
However, not every song was delicate and snowflake-like. Kicking off the show with “Love Thine Enemey,” the opening track off his loose, relatively freewheeling LP Humor Risk, McCombs and his band immediately established their technical prowess in channeling that rumbling Neil Young take on Americana. Later in the set the band laid into “Bradley Manning,” McComb’s idiosyncratic and startling take on the classic ripped-from-the-headlines protest song. In telling the story of Bradley Manning, a gay Iraq war veteran who played an integral role in the WikiLeaks scandal and now faces the possibility of a life in prison, McCombs displays his knack for choosing precise, novelistic details—“passwords are written on sticky notes and stuck to laptop screens”, he sings—while at the same time invoking a strong communal sense of loss through his soft, mercurial voice. Though the music contains a certain degree of rage, McCombs lets the song end on a note of hope: “Bradley, know you have friends, though you’re locked in there.”
This ability to twist floating pieces of modern cultural ephemera into classical song forms distinguishes McCombs from many of the singer-songwriter’s peers who seem content to live in the past. Though he has his anachronistic tendencies—last year he insisted on conducting interviews through written letters—he’s not retreating to the comforts of the past to shield himself from the moral complexities of the present. Yeah, he was shrouded in darkness, but if you squinted you could see him smile at times. Maybe that’s what he’s hiding.
While McCombs remained in darkness and kept the banter to a bare minimum, opener Frank Fairfield was bathed in light and ready to explain the origins of his songs, many of which were drawn from the rich sheet-music songbooks of American history. Looking like a combination between a blustery Paul F. Tompkins character and an extra fresh off the set of Deadwood, former L.A. busker Fairfield is not your typical opening act, despite the fact that he’s toured with the Fleet Foxes. Switching from violin to banjo to guitar, Fairfield was like a chapter from a Greil Marcus book sprung to life (and, lo and behold, a little googling reveals Mr. Marcus is a Fairfield fan). Playing songs from the turn of the century (no, not this century) like “Poor Benny,” “Hannah Won’t You Open The Door” and “Rye Whiskey,” Fairfield charmed the audience with his tossed-off anecdotes, his straight-from-a-gramophone voice and a cadence that sounds like he learned to speak by reading Charles Portis novels.
It was all very quaint, but the things that won me over were Fairfield’s brutish physicality and the ferocious intensity of his playing. Hairs bursting from his violin bow, sweat dripping down his forehead, mouth snarling into a grimace, Fairfield paid tribute to the old songs he loves by making them visceral. The German philosopher (stay with me here…) Walter Benjamin once wrote, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Fairfield brought the danger of the past alive last night, like a lost time traveler with a fiddle, a banjo and a Myspace page.