Over the last few years California-born singer-songwriter Cass McCombs has built a good-size following by holding back: his voice is a well-worn croak; his folky arrangements are unabashedly old-fashioned; his songs usually build toward nothing stronger than a shrug. And on Monday night he filled up the Perth Festival Gardens: not only with the usual self-effacing indie rockers, but also with some more vociferous fans (proof, perhaps, that his appeal extends beyond the indie subculture). One concertgoer was even overheard loudly describing McCombs as “phenomenal!”
The thing about McCombs’s shy charm is that sometimes his music shyly declines to thrill, and sometimes his musical nostalgia seems a bit shopworn. Still, the best McCombs songs positively glow – as was the case with his warm live versions of Robin Egg Blue (plucked from last year’s critically acclaimed Humour Risk) and Dreams Comes True Girl (from 2009’s Catacombs).
The live setting, McCombs band kick back with a looser, rockier feel than previously, yet his dusty, wistful voice still inhabits an age all of its own. There’s also a feeling the talented troubadour is pushing at the fabric of his music, trying to expand and progress. But the same cinematic mist hovers, the same old, old intimacy fans know well.
An arguable highlight of tonight’s set was luring lullaby County Line, a song so Dylanesque you might almost mistake it for a cover (One of his many submissions to the fake Dylan couplet contest: “I feel so blind, I can’t make out the passing road signs.”). McComb’s subject is, in part, the distance between the thing you are and the thing you love, and he’s obsessed with the weird, floaty feeling of being adrift in someone else’s decade.
Yet while his tracks have this Western, homely revivalism – a need to recall the simplistic life before the chaos of emotion and the complexities of modernity – his strum-and-pick guitar style and his not-quite-hoarse voice make their own little place in the world, happily out of time.