Of the many adjectives one could foist upon musicians, “pure” does not top the heap. And yet no word could ring more true when describing Cass McCombs’ set at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday. And when I say “pure,” I do not mean chaste or innocent, but pure in form. Unadulterated. Music for music’s sake, void of frills, gimmicks, and needless chatter.
Opening the evening were Soldiers Of Fortune, a band (or as their bandcamp page declares, an ANTI-BAND!) with incredible stamina given their 12-year history. Often described as a sort of “indie rock supergroup” (Brooklyn Vegan), Soldiers Of Fortune includes members of already successful bands such as Oneida, Interpol, and Chavez to name just a few. Wordlessly taking the stage, they built a layer cake of sound over a span of 45 minutes. Without stopping. Drummer Kid Millions (Oneida) was a sort of charismatic focal point-an odd role for a drummer to be sure. Kid jostled around with a playful Davey Jones air, yelping inspired nonsense throughout the epic “song.” I’d hate to describe SOF as a jam band, due to the horrendous connotations (PHISH!), however it is difficult to think of any other brand with which to stamp them. I suppose this is why labels are so discouraged in the arts.
In a pre-show interview, again from Brooklyn Vegan, McCombs expressed a desire for the evening to be a warmer for the cold weather…a kind of “wintertime orgy,” as he put it. Unfortunately for McCombs, the only sex appeal omitted that night was provided entirely by him. Watching from dead center of the balcony, I cast a wide sight on the at-capacity crowd, and much to the dismay of a hopeful orgy conductor, things were a bit stiff. (No. Not like that, perverts.) Aside from Cass’s effortless magnetism, the most sensual antic the audience could muster came from the boisterous woman to my right, shout-singing the lyrics to “Proud Mary” over a song that was anything but. Meeeeowww.
But I digress. Wasn’t this show about the purity of form? The Music? That’s right. Much like SOF, McComb’s played a nearly banter-less set, pausing between songs only a couple of times for a “thank you” or “peace.” So the fact that he and his band (including Jon Shaw, Dan Iead, and not one, but two drummers) played a two-hour-plus selection of tunes. Thrown in the mix were such greats as “Robin Egg Blue,” “Brighter,” and “Big Wheel.” Naturally, the encore was as aimless and unpredictable as a troubadour like McCombs would have it – just one big “jam.” McCombs actually is a big Phish fan, which might dock his sexy points. But not that much.
But Phish or no Phish, shouting par-drunken fans falling into me or not, nothing can spoil McCombs’s allure, let alone detract from the quality of his songs. He truly has what makes a great musician, solely on these grounds, but goes further with regards to value. He recently threw a benefit for Bernie Sanders, and his ballad for Bradley Manning surfaced on the acclaimed news program Democracy Now. Sex appeal and substance? Yes please.