Cass McCombs leads his band in a performance at 9:30 Club on of Jan. 24, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
It takes a special kind of talent to shape an emotional realm with music and to then lead listeners through it to fulfilling effect. For the exceptionally advanced songwriter, that expression might wield distinct tones and textures, but it might conjure specific colors as well.
In the case of Cass McCombs, the gifted poet and inventive guitarist has made it clear with his latest release that a specific hue likely holds an influence over some of his songs — two of the tracks on 2022’s Heartmind feature the word blue right in the title.
But for any follower who hadn’t yet made that observation and studied the terrain of the remarkable new album, a captivating and transportive performance at 9:30 Club on Jan. 24 would demonstrate the lush moodiness and lyrical brilliance in not just McCombs’ latest offering, but his impressive 20-plus years as a solo artist.
Playing what was his first ever show at DC’s most popular venue, he was making up for a cancelled appearance last fall, and it was an anticipated, long overdue night in the nation’s capital for an enduring and accomplished figure.
Stream Cass McCombs’ 2022 studio album Heartmind via Spotify:
Composed in manner, McCombs walked onto an unembellished stage, and he was accompanied by a talented crew, one clearly hand-picked to help him exude colors like emotions for the duration of a richly satisfying set that only reinforced that Cass should have played here sooner.
Made of up bassist and vocalist Brian Betancourt, drummer Austin Vaughn, and piano/organ/keyboard wizard Frank LoCrasto, this current touring squad is indeed comprised of some of the most in-demand players in indie rock. Betancourt plays with a list of outstanding bands or solo musicians, including Sam Evian; Vaughn has toured and recorded with the likes of Buck Meek, Cassandra Jenkins, and Delicate Steve, and LoCrasto tours with Fruit Bats and has opened for bands like Circles Around the Sun.
None are strangers to DMV venues, and the three of them backed Cass for a pensive take on “Buried Alive,” digging into McCombs’ 2011 album Wit’s End and making quick use of Frank’s skills, and his fingers and his various decks were warm from the refreshing opening set he’d led as the conductor of the Brooklyn-based group Kolumbo.
But with its second song of the night, “A Blue, Blue Band,” this headlining unit would pleasantly project an illusory vibe with a crisscrossing harmony to weave this piece together with a magical flair. Early on, anyone could and should have appreciated such a beautiful submission and the marvelous vision behind it, and the adjustment of stage lights to the appropriate color made it that much more engaging.
“Bum Bum Bum,” already seemingly a modern classic from 2016’s Mangy Love, manifested as a perceptively ominous and circular stroll. As provocative as some of the words might have been coming from Cass’ mouth, they still invited the audience — which grew throughout the night — to comfortably latch onto the unique grooves he creates in pieces like this.
In the gentle and reconciliatory “Robin Egg Blue,” portraying a lighter shade of the color of the hour, Cass’ voice served as an orbiting sentimental presence — solemn and candid. An ear-pleasing jingle, it demonstrated McCombs’ ability to place metered dejection so splendidly within irresistible melodies.
Watch the official music video for Cass McCombs’ 2022 single “Music Is Blue” via his official YouTube channel:
An ever-rolling cut featured in the title to his amazing and monstrous 2013 double-LP, “Big Wheel” delivered as the ornery, callous trucker’s rant that struts and spits with satirical masculinity and self-pride. With the despondence in his voice, Cass made nuanced use of passion to emphasize this loner’s monologue, and it twisted as it drove along, becoming more abrasive with a powerfully intimidating, bluesy beat as the band members seemed to be building on one another.
Quiet and about his business between songs, Cass kindly shrugged off a couple of nutty comments from excited members of the audience, calmly but decidedly steering the set in and out of his latest full-length album, which he recorded over the course of three years and ultimately dedicated to a few friends who departed during that time, including the late Neal Casal. Cass, who hails from Northern California, toured and recorded two albums and an EP with Casal as a member of The Skiffle Players.
Among three younger but incredibly promising and already proven musicians, it seemed Cass himself was thriving in sharing some favorites and delving into this fresh material as well, which sees him at his most informed and, at times, daring — just as he’s known to have been across all his work.
Cass’ supporting musicians each stood out, so noticeably adding to every tune, including “New Earth” from Heartmind. Here, LoCrasto ushered in a retro charm, while Vaughn — one of the most textured and mindful drummers around — was constantly shifting patterns and pulling up different percussion and noise-making devices. And with such a tender frequency in his vocals and his rapid funk on the bass, it became easy to see and hear why Betancourt is such a special addition to any unit.
They meshed so well with Cass, who in his approach seemed to operate like their peer. But make no mistake, with a large catalogue of acclaimed music to his name, McCombs inventiveness and his clear perception are the gateway to these riveting songs, the stories they tell or ideas they propose.
Another piece that clearly explores music as a life source while reflecting on significant loss, “Belong to Heaven” is one of several tunes on Heartmind that benefits from a variety of noteworthy guests — the likes of Wynonna Judd and Danielle Haim sing on the record. Live in DC and with the help of this capable squad, Cass brought it to life and augmented it with blasting and contrasting instrumentation. A shift to a slower gear, “Unproud Warrior” rang out like a tribute for people and places as they might have been in the days before these strange recent times.
And with McCombs as a transfixing orator who can be so imaginative and thoughtful with his words and how they present within his compositions, the night at 9:30 Club was a rewarding one for the folks who’d persevered through the cancelation and delay to celebrate this once-local gentleman in person.
Though he’s not lived in Baltimore for many years, there was indeed a local flavor to the ordeal — you could hear Ex Hex leader and local star Mary Timony cheering for Brian and the rest of the band from the VIP section.
The second song on the new album with primary color as its centerpiece, “Music Is Blue” was in its live version an ambitious dive into deep shadows, where again music is really an escape from everything else, but ultimately requires sacrifice and perspective so as not to be fooled by its prizes.
Stream the two new tracks released in late 2022 by Cass McCombs and Weak Signal via Spotify:
Arguably one of the sweetest new additions to Cass’ songbook, “Karaoke” is a swift, honest and nostalgic piece that hears his voice at its most graceful, even if it reveals bitter heartbreak over the inventible end of a once-fruitful relationship.
Longtime and new fans, too, were treated to a broad sample of his sound, including the title track to his 2004 EP Not the Way and “Sacred Heart” from 2005’s Perfection. Near the end of the set, “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” manifested as a brilliantly simple, gorgeous and longing piece of songwriting.
Essentially segueing into “Sleeping Volcanoes” from 2021’s Tip of the Sphere, the band billowed up and met in synch with Cass as he rolled the unforgettable words to this track — the “we’re all over the world” chorus serving as an uplifting statement of perseverance in the face of the daunting and unknown. And with LoCrasto applying so many layers of sound, it grew larger, took on a cosmic aim and magnificently bounced off the venue walls.
With an encore serving up two of his supporters’ longtime favorites — “Brighter!” from his 2013 record and “That’s That” from 2007’s Dropping the Writ — the night was a compelling showcase of some of the best of this man’s work.
Few musicians have McCombs’ natural allure. And rare is it to see a singer-songwriter who can so masterfully and consistently leverage a lyrical gift and employ avant-garde guitar chops in a way that keeps distinguishing his sound as original, authentic, and grandiose from album to album.
A Blue, Blue Band
Bum Bum Bum
Robin Egg Blue
Belong to Heaven
Love Thine Enemy
Music Is Blue
Not The Way
Here are images of Cass McCombs along with the night’s opening act, Kolumbo, performing at 9:30 Club on Jan. 24, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.