The last time I saw Cass McCombs in concert, he was very angry. I’ve blocked most of the night out, but the parts I remember involve McCombs repeatedly asking for the lights to be dimmed, one concert goer in the crowd requesting that the singer take his shirt off, and a general sense that he hated everyone in attendance. Last night, McCombs was a much more gracious performer (he said “thank you” more than once!), and played a short and tidy nine song set to a paltry standing room crowd at the Showbox Market. Despite it lacking seething anger emanating from onstage, the set was weird in a lot of different ways. I’ve never attended a concert where I could hear someone’s yawn over the music. Or witnessed a man next to me sketching a still life portrait of the musicians in a moleskine. Or been distracted by a venue’s disco ball. Or stood next to so many men in scarves at a row of urinals. McCombs and his band played two of my favorite songs from his latest album, Humor Risk, “Love Thine Enemy” and “Robin Egg Blue,” and with most of the songs being somewhat subdued, the few moments where the band cut loosed seemed even more invigorating.
Cass McCombs setlist
Read about John Cale after the jump.
Probably because I’m an abject ageist, I have to restrain myself when talking about musicians who are older than me. Trying to write about John Cale right now, the same boilerplate terms immediately come to mind, like “godfather of (genre tag),” “elder statesman,” “he’s still rocking after all these years,” or any other description that’s essentially saying the musician is very revered, but also has his best years behind him. When I was a little younger, I had a hard time understanding why any older musician would put out new records and tour behind them, when the only songs anyone ever wanted to hear were the older ones. It’s taken a little while, but I think I’m finally understanding the reasons for an artist not wanting to play the same songs for 30 years.
I will say that my primary motivation for seeing Cale live last night wasn’t a fondness (or even a strong familiarity) with his solo work; it was mostly to simply be in the same room as a man who was in the Velvet Underground, and like I mentioned in my Underage column this week, responsible for producing some of the best albums of all time. So I didn’t recognize most of the material he played last night. Going over my notes, and listening to his new album right now, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, Cale and his band played most of that record, live; to my groggy morning ears, it sounded a lot better live. I could hear some of the various decades that Cale has been active, from his ’70s peak (hearing “Helen of Troy” was the highlight of the night for me) to ’80s excursions into synth pop (I’d never heard “Satellite Walk” before last night, but with its lyrics of “Who's that in the big Japanese car?” and “Who’s been sleeping in my VCR” it wasn’t too hard to pinpoint which decade it came from), and finally his modern output. With his younger backing band, Cale had a certain headmaster’s air about him, dutifully leaning one ear towards his pupils, and giving them brief moments to shine. Saying goodbye at the end of the night, after playing a medley of songs that went from “Gun” (one of my favorite songs ever) into a cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso,” Cale said he’d be back soon. I just hope I do more of my homework before next time.