Cass McCombs shines in concert

By Amanda Murphy

Cass McCombs is known as a vagabond of sorts. Constantly moving around the country, staying on couches, campsites and in cars, he returned to Chicago, one of his old stomping grounds, to show the city what he learned during his travels.

But unlike McCombs’ wandering lifestyle, his Jan. 29 show at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., proved to be a grounded performance, never failing to reach through to the audience.

The show supported the two albums he released in 2011, “Wit’s End” and “Humor Risk,” both very different efforts from the eclectic musician. One emphasizes delicately written love songs and the other brings a raw rock sound, but the two albums share McCombs’ eloquent lyrics and masterful songwriting. It was a seamless pairing for the show.

The concert covered the albums well, interweaving the fast- and slow-paced songs, never letting the audience linger too long before surprising them with a completely different sound.

Maybe because of McCombs’ wandering ways, his music showcases a variety of American influences ranging from country to a psychedelic California sound. It’s a trait that made the show constantly new and refreshing, with songs never dragging or bleeding into one another. Beginning with a bang with “Love Thine Enemy,” the first track off “Humor Risk,” McCombs gave the audience what it wanted.

The stage remained dark except for a lit grid at the back, allowing the audience to truly concentrate on the music. Because the five figures on stage were only shadows moving, it could prompt those listening to close their eyes, relax and fully enjoy the flawless sounds of both the heart-wrenching ballads and the hard-hitting rock songs.

Throughout the rest of the show, McCombs hammered out each song, rarely stopping to banter with the audience or interact with them. He played song after song, charming the audience not with words but with his natural artistic gifts.

As the concert continued, it picked up momentum, drawing strength from the energy of the audience. With no encore nor warning that it was the last song, the band quickly said goodbye and headed off the stage, maintaining the “no-bull” attitude of the entire show.

It is also necessary to mention the well-paired opening act, Frank Fairfield. Taking the stage, he dressed, spoke and carried himself in a way that he could easily have been taken for age 50. But at only half that, Fairfield brought a skill and knowledge of music rarely seen in such young talent. Sitting in a chair with a guitar, fiddle and banjo haphazardly placed at his side, Fairfield managed to fill the entire stage with legendary folk and blues tunes such as “Nine Pound Hammer.”

Although his body constantly swayed, his foot tapped loudly on the floor and his fingers seemed to move as fast as hummingbird wings, Fairfield maintained a calm and concentrated presence as he effortlessly played every song, only struggling once with the correct tuning of his banjo. He is a surefire prodigy. Even if that Appalachian Delta sound isn’t your favorite, it’s impossible to not appreciate and recognize his talent.

With McCombs’ impeccable performance and Fairfield’s daguerreotype demeanor, the show provided anyone lucky enough to catch a listen with some of America’s finest musical talent.