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Review: McCombs, Fairfield at Crescent Ballroom

Last night’s Cass McCombs, Frank Fairfield show at Crescent Ballroom didn’t need theatrics. It was as simple as this: musicians immersed in their art.

Frank Fairfield

“I’m a little bit out of it,” are among the first words that Frank Fairfield mumbled to the modest-sized audience at Crescent Ballroom.

Wearing a neutral-colored outfit – a jacket, sweater, button up, dress pants and well-worn brogues – Fairfield sat in the center of the stage, surrounded by his instruments. The 20-something year old has dark hair, a thick mustache that drips over the corners of his mouth, and a squint not strong enough to hide his blue eyes. If you’re close enough to him while he performs, you’ll see that when he plays his fiddle, it looks like he’s chewing on something, and when he stomps his feet, it is so loud that your heart syncs with it.

Fairfield and the audience took turns laughing. They laughed at some of his lyrics (one song mentions a chicken trying to bite him and his brother stepping on the wings of the chicken instead) and commentary. He laughed, a nervous type, when he spoke.

Although he apologized for being “a bit aloof,” Fairfield spoke often to the audience, his voice sometimes inaudible. “It’s nice to be here in Arizona…a beautiful state…rich heritage…” he said after his first song “Give Me Back My 15 Cents.”

He talked about the waltz’s popularity in Arizona, at one time. And with muted enthusiasm, briefly mentioned the history of fiddle and string music. To Fairfield, this genre, which was predominately recorded during the 1920s and 1930s, is “not forgotten,” though it may at times seem lost. He also challenges the notion that “simple, rag-time music” that involves a fiddle or banjo should be classified as Appalachian music.

During his eight-song set, he alternated instruments and played “down-home” songs such as “Little Liza Jane,” “Rye Whiskey,” and “Texas Farewell.”

Surprisingly, people had a lot to say. One woman asked him about a fiddler from Arizona that Fairfield did not know. His response, “I don’t know much of anything. I’m sure there’s plenty of people in this room more qualified than I am.” To which another onlooker reassured him, “you’re doing awesome.” Towards the end of the set, another request was made, “it’s been stuck in my head for two years,” added the requester. “Well, I’m sorry for that,” responded Fairfield.

Yes, he is an odd person in that he is nothing you would expect a male musician in his 20s to be. The multi-instrumentalist does not need frills, and as he said when his guitar string broke in the middle of a song, “Well, you get the idea.”

Cass McCombs

The first thing I noticed about Cass McCombs was his deep-set dimples. He grinned as he walked on stage with his four bandmates. Then, I noticed his patchwork jeans. Next, his physical and somewhat musical comparability to the late Elliott Smith, and even Conor Oberst. And finally, how engrossed he can become in his art.

“You don’t have to sit there…you can dance” he said to the audience seated on the benches in front of the stage. Seconds later, the band began with “Buried Alive” from 2011’s Wit’s End. A song that doesn’t necessarily lend to dancing, but whatever. The track was followed by a short “intermission” to tame the “ghost in our machines,” or the radio signal picked up by the amplifier.

Overall, the set was a jam session. The band was mostly stationary, aside from their shared sways with the audience. McCombs, too, didn’t do much. But I expected that, and so I wasn’t disappointed.

Meet Me Here At Dawn,” and “County Line” were highlights for the crowd, who clapped when they recognized the former and seemed to liven when they heard the latter, in which McCombs moved stage right to work on the piano next to William Canzoneri.

The set list, written on paper plates for the bandmates, and sitting atop a stack of papers in an open folder near McCombs’ microphone, included thirteen songs spanning his discography. Even with his generous set, people made requests, such as “The Lonely Doll.” To which McCombs simply replied, “That’s not on the agenda.”

It seems as though McCombs’ performance wasn’t for the audience. He wasn’t interested in having a chat with the crowd but did acknowledge their cheers with a smirk and head nod. “Everyone still OK?” he asked halfway through the set, as if he remembered he had onlookers. Occassionally, he requested light changes from Crescent staff, something like, “dim the lights,” “backlit,” “can we change the lights again?”

But mostly, he was focused on his music. Maybe that’s the way “unobtrusively brilliant,” as John Peel called him, nomadic musicians are. I have no complaints about the musical package I received last night, but I’m certain some concertgoers would have preferred a better delivery method.

1. Buried Alive
2. Prima Donna
3. Robin Egg Blue
4. My Sister, My Spouse
5. One Way To Go
6. County Line
7. Meet Me Here At Dawn
8. The Same Thing
9. Bradley Manning
10. Don’t Vote
11. Gee, It’s Good To Be Back Home
12. Your Mother and Father
13. Equinox

Check out a few more photos from the evening on The Spec‘s Flickr.


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