On a quintessentially wintry January eve, the 13th makes for Rockfeedback’s first show of 2014, and you can’t help but sense that the same can be said for many, if not most in attendance. It’s in an initial lethargy to inundate the darkened bar area of the Southbank Centre’s largely sunless annex, with a general reluctance to saunter inside the ligneous innards of the Queen Elizabeth Hall rendered instantly apparent. “Hey, what’s up?” comes a gruff mumble emanating upward from onstage, the evening’s troubadour extraordinaire Cass McCombs announcing his arrival in compliance with that all-pervasive January languor aforementioned. Although as the hour or so over which he graces said stage gradually unravels, so too does a(n albeit overwhelmingly autumnal, musically sepia) warmth.
It’s an understated, if never reticent showing from the nomadic Californian, his pristine sneakers informal as a backdrop of heavy-duty boxes and metallic flight cases softly glinting in minimal lighting. “I live by my principles, I stick to my guns” he’ll immediately grumble of the guttural freight rumbling to Big Wheel, implicitly suggesting he shan’t be adopting any kind of unduly glitzy stage show any time soon. What McCombs has accrued since the release of last year’s widely revered Big Wheel And Others, however, is a following fibrous enough to more or less fill this somewhat incongruous setting. And it’s material from that which burns brightest tonight – the subtly coruscating Name Written in Water, that recalls a kind of Blind Fleetwood Warhols hybrid; a quite radiant Morning Star that shines with noble beauty, in spite of its latent adulterous undertones; the scintillating, gentle smoulder of Brighter. It’s that which, rather irrefutably, burns most lustrously tonight, illumined as it may be by shimmering, wistful lap steel guitar lines. Inimitably lovelorn, a lingering melodrama is draped across McCombs’ crackly vocal like weeping willow branches coiled lovingly around a forgotten grave. Indeed, there’s a whiff of stagnation, or perhaps rather pure small-town inertia to it, and the track is quite fantastic for that.
It’s that which most lucidly suggests McCombs may yet be considered the latest in a lengthy line of great stateside songwriters – one aligning the likes of Robert Johnson, Neil Young, Ryan Adams and so on ad bumptious nauseam. But in the case of McCombs, it’s his infectious nonchalance that ensures the response to pretty well every last number is unmistakably rapturous. Yes, there’s occasionally perhaps a little too much artisanal pomp to it, at times intimating toward mere impersonation, this haute Americana played out in plaid apparently studied as it is winsome – Angel Blood momentarily borders on a bluesy caricature, in truth. But, with all patter kept to a minimum, the whispers of rugged fingers slipping lissom across several fretboards the only utterance to puncture every silence, McCombs & Co. allow for the music to do the talking.
In the instance of a comparably rowdy What Isn’t Nature, it does less speaking than screaming, the song redolent of a freshly-squeezed Orange Juice pressing mixed with the wilting melancholy of Caribou’s Swim, that’s subsequently amped up to seven or so. It’s thoroughly refreshing, not least in the wake of an admittedly rather middling middle segment, as listless torpor is replaced by an injection of vim and distinctive urgency. For whereas much of McCombs’ work sounds openly daydreamy – the soundtrack to an escapist’s distracted reverie, if you will – What Isn’t Nature pertains to the palpable feel of release. And it compels the room to breathe again.
As is with another number from Big Wheel And Others, There Can Only Be One, McCombs exhibits something of a natural proclivity to intermittently drift off into only too hypnagogic tropes himself, the track’s lullabying bass line culpable this time around. Aeon Of Aquarius Blues, meanwhile, sees a constant stream of people slithering toward watering holes outside. Yet when he succeeds, Cass’ outpour spectacularly transports to some halcyon transatlantic epoch, in which you find yourself fictitiously travelling Route 66 in the backseat of some knackered Cadillac. “You’re not my dream-girl; you’re not my reality-girl/ You’re my dreams-come-true-girl” he’ll begin on the ensuing Dreams-Come-True-Girl, and if in dreams you may find yourself sat in some amphitheatrical bowl, Bud in hand, in the faltering heart of Midwestern nowhere, then Cass McCombs could well be your man. For just like all those grubby, disremembered dimes lodged down the backs of sofas nationwide, McCombs is a quintessential, if only too often overlooked product of 20th century America. And having clanked up and down the spine of the country on his incessant traipsing, this should come as no surprise – not even to a white, middle-class congregation such as this.