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Wednesday, December 13

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Review Tue Dec 10 2013

Cass McCombs Rode a Big Wheel to the Empty Bottle

Cass McCombs' has often been compared to Bob Dylan or Neil Young, but those comparisons seem a tad too simple. McCombs has the ability to summon a sense of anxiety, and even a touch of anarchy, into a style of music that can sometimes err on the side of being overly sedate. This was put front and center during his sold out show at the Empty Bottle last Friday.

Opening the evening was Baltimore band Arboretum. With a Rhodes keyboard accompanying a bass/drums/guitar setup, the sound emanating from the stage evoked raggedy Appalachian folk melodies backed by pulsating post-rock. The instrumentation was muscular, and surprisingly bass-heavy in contrast to the pinched twinge of Dave Heumann's vocals. His guitar playing was given ample time, as the songs stretched over minutes of instrumental breaks, and tentative guitar arpeggios and swells gave way to more conventional, searing leads.

McCombs and company took the stage and lumbered into "Big Wheel," the (sort of) title track off his newest release, Big Wheel and Others. The tune's circular guitar riff was accompanied by a hypnotizing drumbeat, with the stuttering rumble of the toms reverberating throughout the room. It drew my focus towards Joe Russo, the man behind the kit; I was hooked on his playing all night as he expertly balanced intricate beats while maintaining the spare dignity so many of McCombs' songs generate.

That's not to say the show struck a somber tone; a winking, devious nod to the Allman Bros. "Ramblin' Man" early in the set, as well as the band's irreverent and excitable approach, dismissed any hints of grimness. McCombs and guitarist Dan Lead never succumbed to fretwork histrionics, but intertwined soupy, snaking guitar lines that cut a path between, around and behind the rhythm section's work. The simplicity of the tunes themselves could play tricks. Songs fashioned on the millionth iteration of a common folk progression would shift slightly enough away from the cliché to dash any assumptions I had about where the song was heading.

Near the end of the set, the band played "Don't Vote" from 2009's Catacombs. A stunning song with a steady, engrossing build, it briefly stilled the enthusiastic, if chatty, crowd, as their attention turned towards the elegy unfolding onstage. When the band left for an encore break, there were calls for "County Line," the opening track from 2011's Wit's End and the closest thing McCombs has to a hit. Sure enough, when the band returned they acquiesced. The somber ballad did what I'd previously considered impossible; it made the Empty Bottle seem too expansive, so hushed was the performance and the song itself. As it unfolded, "County Line" brought to mind the same elemental spook as a song like "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingos, conjuring a disquieting and powerful intimacy. It managed to make the sound of a roar by whispering, a trick played again and again by McCombs' catalog and performance.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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