Cass McCombs The Fillmore San Francisco April 5, 2019

It was a goodbye before it even started

Some things are over before they begin, some things happen exactly as they’re supposed to, somethings have been this way and will be this way forever. That was last night at the Fillmore. I kept watching Cass in his white lounge jacket, bathed in the purple and blue tones of the lights, smoke curling through the white spotlights that cut through the jewel tones, thinking, “I’ve been here before, this is the way it is supposed to be.” Was it because it was at a venue as familiar as the Fillmore? Was it because of the signature glowing light boards at back of the stage? In some ways, it was my least favorite show; in all ways, it was exactly what I needed the show to be.

The Set and Setting

In addition to the two tickets I bought at the box office back in November when I attended the Phosphorescent show at the Fillmore, I won two tickets so I brought a bunch of friends along: Kai, Jackie, and Margaret, none of whom had even listened to Cass’s music before that day, if at all. It was really cool to have my peeps there but we were all on different wavelengths; the most I can hope is I can turn someone onto what has been life-giving for me. Sometimes it works, and sometime it doesn’t. Nonetheless my buddy from the night before, Patrick, got to the Fillmore at 7 pm and held it down consistently since his arrival. He and I were admittedly low energy from blowing all our chips the night before, but we rallied and the music gave us life.

While waiting for Sam Evian to come on, Kai, Jackie and I went to one of the poster rooms upstairs at the Fillmore, where I had somehow never been, and were treated to a singer with a guitar up there, and where I first spotted special guest Bongo Sidibe. At nine I knew it was time so we headed downstairs. I hung with Patrick at the front rail for Sam and co. to do their thing, again joined by Hannah Cohen, which was amazing and warm and heartfelt. It made me so happy to see those guys knock it out of the park for their last night on the tour, and for their first time at the Fillmore. I can’t wait to see what happens to them next, and to catch them on tour again.

There was again a long intermission between Sam Evian and Cass McCombs. I fell back to my group four rows from the front and got impatient, but excited. There was a lot going on and the crowd kept morphing.

Once Cass’s set started, it was the typical ambiance-producing Frank LoCrasto singularly on keyboards, and then Cass and band joined him. It made me reflect that I think they did this at every show I went to except in Santa Cruz. From there the set took on the shape of the sets I had come to expect, opening with “Sleeping Volcanoes,” “The Great Pixley Train Robbery,” and “Bum Bum Bum.” For this show, we had two special guests: Bongo Sidibe and Joel Robinow, the former of which made his appearance on “Bum.” Obviously missing was “Estrella,” but in addition to “Real Life,” they got to “Morning Star” again… after he played “Morning Star” in LA, I looked more closely at the lyrics, which are quite sexy, and so it was a special treat to hear it again.

Special Songs

The first special number of the night was “County Line,” on which it felt like Cass was drawing it out to be as excruciatingly slow as possible. I flashed-back to when he stated in an interview that he just wrote it to write a sad song. In the moments it was playing, the emphasis on down-tempo felt like it was urging us to straddle ecstasy and pain—he was bringing us to the brink of something. I hadn’t heard “County Line" on the tour at all yet, but I have heard it before, namely that fateful night in Eagle Rock in February 2011—which was before Wit’s End even came out. A couple songs later, after pumping us up with “Big Wheel,” Cass gave us one from the new album I had not heard on the tour at all, and had been missing: “Tying Up Loose Ends.” It was at this point I shoved my way back up to Patrick at the front rail to confirm with him that the song had not been played yet. I understand why such a summative song can’t go at the end of the concert, or at the end of the album for that matter, but it felt like this show was the one and only show that deserved “Tying Up Loose Ends” because it is the end of the tour and now it is time to transition to what’s next.

Painstakingly Slow

Above all, the show last night was painstakingly slow—it could have been me and my mindset, my tiredness, my aching body, and some of the weird vibes I was getting from the crowd—but unlike the past tour dates that I brought friends or family, all of whom deeply enjoyed it, my friends that came along last night were challenged to stay engaged. The band took their time tinkering between songs, setting up, getting things tuned in. Maybe they were trying to prolong this last night as well: Cass did mention he hoped to do us good, having earlier posted on Instagram and nostalgic post about the Fillmore, the tour’s highlights, and its close—was he getting perfectionist?

At the end of the show, the encore again was “Rancid Girl,” but I love the way Cass McCombs gets animated and articulates when singing that song so I wasn’t mad… Patrick rolled his eyes a little bit, “Really? Rancid Girl for every encore of the tour?” “Maybe they’ll do a second encore,” I responded. And they did! After “Rancid Girl” Cass kinda looked around, “Time for one more?” and we’re yelling hell yeah. One more it was… “Brighter!” So good. I thought I had heard “Brighter” at one of the other shows, but I can’t remember which ones and some of the setlists online are incomplete. Nonetheless everyone loves that song and it was the perfect positive note to send us out into the night, and to look to the next album I know he is already working on.

Setlist from Setlist.fm

  • Sleeping Volcanoes

  • The Great Pixley Train Robbery

  • Bum Bum Bum (with Bongo Sidibe)

  • Morning Star (with Bongo Sidibe)

  • Laughter Is the Best Medicine (with Bongo Sidibe)

  • Absentee

  • Real Life

  • County Line

  • American Canyon Sutra

  • Big Wheel (with Bongo Sidibe)

  • Tying Up Loose Ends

  • In a Chinese Alley

  • Cry

  • Not The Way

  • Rounder

    Encore:

  • Rancid Girl

  • Brighter!

Cass McCombs Moe's Alley Santa Cruz April 4, 2019

Moe’s Alley is a small, intimate venue in Santa Cruz made even more intimate with the sleepy town vibe of Commercial Street after dark on a weeknight. Santa Cruz may have been my favorite of all six shows I went to despite my feelings of extreme overstimulation leading up to the show. Fortunately the fellow concert goers were hella chill and friendly, the sets were on point, and both bands seemed comfortable and happy at their height. Thursday night was the zenith of the tour, even though it was the penultimate night. Sam Evian acknowledged as much during the opening set, saying something along the lines of goodbye one night early.

At the beginning of the night, a nice couple invited me to join them at their table, where we talked about music, family, life, etc., and I found out they were originally from Montana and will be relocating somewhere in the Pacific Northwest after their interim in California is complete. They were so nice and seemed fascinated by what I was doing. We seemed to click but I left them when Sam Evian started playing to head to the floor. Julie and Dave, if you’re reading this, get in touch with me! Sorry I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye at the end of the show.

That warmth primed me for a great night. Those of us standing closest to the stage were still a bit standoffish and Sam invited us to move closer. We all must have felt uncomfortable crowding the band because the front of the stage is literally within arms reach of peeps on stage. However that act secured my spot in the very front for the remainder of the show, made even more possible by the friendship I sparked with a fellow show goer that seemed over the top enthusiastic. During break between the two bands, we exchanged stories and I discovered this guy is probably an even bigger Cass McCombs fan than myself! “I’ve seen Cass play 14 times,” Patrick proudly proclaimed. You can bet we bro-ed down hardcore over our favorite albums, the setlist, etc. Patrick caught the Sacramento show, and was planning on going to San Francisco the following night. I informed him of my mini tag along on most of the west coast tour dates, which he obviously thought was hella sick. I held his spot while he got us drinks and he held my spot when I stepped out for a break. Toward the end of Cass’s set we both started doing the annoying thing where we yelled out the songs we wanted him to play. “Sister Spouse!!!” Patrick kept yelling, then “Nature!” for me. When Cass and the band first came on stage, we caught a glimpse of the setlist, and indeed “My Sister My Spouse” and “What Isn’t Nature” were both on the list, but at some point in the middle Patrick yelled out, “Sister Spouse!!” and Cass responded, “We cut that one,” and I was like, “He’s fucking with you, mofo,” but he wasn’t: they did indeed cut Sister Spouse and Nature, but they added “Dreams Come True Girl” instead, which is definitely one of the cult favorites. Patrick said that at the Sacramento show there was a very drunk girl who kept heckling them to play “Dreams Comes True Girl” and at some point Cass kinda loss his patience and shut her down, which Patrick indicated was a little uncomfortable. Interestingly, they saved “Sleeping Volcanoes” for the last song before the encore, which was again Rancid Girl, and before “Sleeping Volancoes” they did “Rounder,” which I grooved out hard on. You can actually see my dang head bobbing all around in this video.

The crowd was exceedingly chill and forgiving, while Patrick, myself, some hippie chick, and these other younger girlies were holding it down in front of the stage. Every once in while one of us would yell something that seemed to make Cass smile and I felt like he was at his best of being in his element as a “entertainer” in that venue on that night—the night of the new moon, an auspicious sign. Again, I barely took any photos, and part was in due to the way the crowd was not into their phones, reminiscent of Vancouver. My notes were remarkably lacking as well, mostly noting that Dan’s role on the bass is integral to Estrella, and “I got the bass on Chinese Medicine,” which was “fucking bliss.” I did manage to get a couple audio clips recorded. The first is of the opening music they played on the PA before Sam’s band started—it was the same music that was played before the show in LA which made me realize not only did Cass or someone on his team pick it, but it must have been played at all the venues before the show—I only arrived early enough in LA and Santa Cruz to catch it. The second thing is, I need to know what this strangely unsettling oriental music is!!

The second recording is of American Canyon Sutra as heard from the patio—I am not sure what moved me to make this recording but whoop here it is.

Patrick and I were both whipped into a frenzy by the end of the show. Once the band exited, I hoisted him onto the stage and he grabbed setlists for both of us!! Then we ended up hanging out by the merch booth gushing about the show, and thanks to Patrick’s outgoing personality we ended up talking to all the members of Sam Evian’s band except the second guitarist. What nice guys!! When I told Sam about all of their shows I had been to, his face lit up and he seemed to interested and pleased that someone would do something like that. After chatting with them all for a while, sending them good vibes for the show the next night, and shaking hands, we exchanged greetings with “See you tomorrow,” which didn’t end up happening, but in retrospect it was our way of hermetically sealing the connection forged that night.

After I got my stuff from the merch booths, we headed outside and even though Cass was on stage breaking down the equipment, I opted to continue on. Patrick tried me to get Cass to sign my album, but I was like, “He’s not into that stuff,” and Patrick had to concede that Cass refused him signing an album one time. My horoscope for that day, 4-4-19, said not to hold back when something was in reach. I am not sure if I held back or didn’t held back, but the evening was pretty perfect.

Cass McCombs Aladdin Theater Portland March 27, 2019

Last night can be summed up by one image: two moving bodies at the front of the stage surrounded by an otherwise stationary crowd. The crowd is surrounded by a bowl of theater seats. Folks in the balcony seats beam down from the very back. The Aladdin Theater is quite large, quite fun, and quite historic. I was continuously surprised to look over and behold Connor, the shy introvert who had basically never even listened to Cass McCombs, rocking out harder than CM’s “so-called fans” around us. (Connor is particularly good at throwing shade.)

Despite the night blurring by more so than in Vancouver or Seattle, it was epic and the band was on point again. Cass directed the new drummer subtly throughout. The set list was similar as Seattle, except they swapped out “What Isn’t Nature” for “My Sister My Spouse” in terms of the backfile. The only thing I could respond was “She’s not heavy, she’s my sister,” which fell upon deaf ears and mostly the song meant to me that family and a lover is indistinguishable, in the best of either scenario you get a spouse, in one scenario you get a powerful birthright if the chemistry and circumstances allow.

The set list continued with a couple more from Mangy Love—Chinese Alley and Cry, which were absolutely electrifying. The jam of Chinese Alley was such a cool thing to hear played live. In Vancouver I may have experienced the pinnacle of bliss on Laughter is the Best Medicine, but in Portland the song became an elixir, an anthem for Connor and I—a song to describe our joint flailing to cope with the pains of life and breaking out of our upbringings. Later, on the drum-heavy rendition of American Canyon Sutra, I was choked with emotion as the song transmuted into prayer for Jeremiah Peterson, my high school classmate who died in Big Tujunga Canyon sometime in 2011/2012 and whose soul I hope has transcended the Canyon. American Canyon Sutra is a prayer for transcending prisons both physical and metaphysical.

Rounder, again the penultimate song, was infinity. And again, for the encore, Sam Evian’s band came on stage for Rancid Girl.

Last night I thought a lot about the subjects of CM’s songs, those spoken from the point of view of a man, and those about women. Being a documented supporter of women’s rights, Cass McCombs is a protagonist for telling female stories. The cool thing is they are still usually non-mainstream stories that convey the complexity of identity and the personas we build for ourselves—he resists telling a woman’s story just for the sake of telling it, and isn’t afraid to present a woman who is “immoral” or unattractive in the traditional sense—I am thinking of Tourist Woman and Rancid Girl here. When it comes to the types of stories he tells about men, they are usually the type of characters we rarely hear from: the homeless, the convict, the fugitive. In I Followed the River South to What, the panhandler speaks in a captivating voice, and the judgement possessed by the person being addressed in the song becomes the proxy for the listener’s potential judgement. In this experience, as listeners we are tricked into receiving stories we may blowoff in real life. This is Cass’s gift of enlarging any one person’s world.

Why do any of us use art to express the human experience, and what significance does our contribution have? “Art fills the void”; “What makes you curious?”: these are slogans painted on murals in Portland, and when you’re searching for the answer like I am now, the truth in the slogan resonates. For me, following the West Coast tour dates, I am careful not to conflate fanaticism with authentic experience. Careful not to subjugate my personhood and contributions in the subterfuge of Cass’s celebrity. I have to live my own life with enough concentration to enact my credo.

We’re at the half way point: three shows down, three shows to go, for me at least—I’m going to miss Sacramento tomorrow and Santa Barabara next week, probably.

At the end of the concert last night, a fellow concert-goer approached Connor and I, and thanked us for dancing and keeping the energy going in the front. Our pleasure, nice to meet you…

Cass McCombs Chop Suey Seattle, March 26, 2019

Break it down, get us fired up. Hell yeah we got fired up last night at Chop Suey in Capitol Hill in Seattle. Back in the US, back to a crowd more colorful, more varied, more down home American.

Karen and Garrett, my friends from San Francisco who recently relocated to Seattle, accompanied me last night and they brought the enthusiasm, first falling in love with Sam Evian’s tunes and then later, facilitating the CM love when we unwittingly got caught in the very back of the room (hey, the view was good). The place was packed. The venue itself has a low ceiling and a feeling of intimacy with performer and audience, a good bar with Seattle Dry Cider on tap, and a kitchen that serves sandwiches and burgers (in this case by a speed goth).

In our case, the back was a place from which to better survey the crowd, their pluck, a better place from which to project cheers and whoops and to reflect energy back to the front. The other guys in the back loved it too. People kept yelling “THANK YOU” and “I LOVE YOU” at Cass and it was pretty much true for all of us. Cass was smiling, his body language was authoritative and playful and he would lean sideways this way or that, delivering his unwavering falsettos with squinted conviction.

Last night Sam Evian again joined Cass and the band for a run of several songs, starting with What Isn’t Nature (some of the pics are of that number), but the long faced drummer from Sam’s band did not drum for CM last night. Cass himself looked good, good haircut holding up, and his white shirt was emblazoned with a Pilot logo, giving credence to his own truck stop persona—life on the road as a musician sometimes equals wearing Pilot t-shirts out of necessity like any normal long-haul trucker.

I took away many truths last night, the two primary truths being 1) there is no wrong way if you are harnessing your own talented energy, luxuriating in it, and giving it back to the world in sheer joy—and that’s what I’m trying to do with my life, mostly through rare books and archives; and 2) Cass uses his voice as an instrument just as much as he uses the guitar. On this tour, in particular, his vocals are no longer simply a component that rounds out the melody, they are no longer solely the deliverer of a message (even though yes, he’s a poet and an auteur): his vocals have transformed to being the only ticket out of the chaos—the only ticket to ride out the meandering euphony and find the mainline back to the selfhood and the exclamation of the human spirit.

Set list

  • Sleeping Volacanoes

  • Bum Bum Bum

  • The Great Pixley Train Robbery

  • Estrella

  • What Isn’t Nature (this is off A and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play it live, so amazing. He sounds exactly the same as he does on the recording which was put out in 2003. I love the early stuff so much. I’ll definitely be listening to A on my drive to Portland today)

  • Laughter is the Best Medicine (epic jam session)

  • Sidewalk Bop After Suicide

  • Absentee (again, a trio with Sam Evian and Frank LoCrasto)

  • American Canyon Sutra (the turning point according to Garrett, who is not that into jam music. It was at this point Cass took off his satin white smoking jacket and according to Garrett the music changed)

  • I Followed the River South to What

  • Morning Star

  • Big Wheel (my favorite jam session of the night)

  • Brighter

  • Rounder (but really this jam session was my favorite because I just wanted it to keep going on forever. By this point I had weaseled my way back up to the front of the dance floor and was grooving)

    Encore

  • Rancid Girl

Cass McCombs St. James Hall Vancouver Mar 25, 2019

This morning there is a pep in my step. A feeling of lingering contentedness and tenderness pervades my world view. It’s almost like the feeling, “Yes, I can go on,” that comes after spending a day with a really good friend or a night receiving unexpected yet welcome affection.

The venue of the Cass McCombs concert last night here in Vancouver, British Columbia was St James Hall, a churchy-community meeting center on a quiet, green residential street one block off a main shopping thoroughfare. The humble sanctuary-like gathering space had pews in the back and a balcony filled with pews as well. The neighborhood’s called Kitsilano and the stage has a large A-frame architectural accent that adds to the visual composition of the performance by drawing one’s eye upward—toward heaven, toward the Sacred Heart? As such, it was a dry show, and Sam Evian in his sleepy, theology school dropout affect respectfully pointed that out. Later, about half way into Cass’s set, Dan Horne produce a bottle of bourbon, and after he and Cass took a pull, he set it down on the stage within reach of the crowd, and some front-rowers helped themselves to it.

Cass seemed like he was in good spirits, playful and smiley with the crowd, wearing his signature white satin lounge coat over a shirt screen-printed with the visage of Humphrey Bogart. Dan Horne looked kinda fucked up but he was jamming hard. The keyboardist, Frank LoCrasto, looked spaced out from the night before but did not miss a beat. The long-faced drummer from Sam Evian’s group joined Cass and the gang.

During Cass’s set, Sam Evian played the sax on about three or four songs, including “Medicine,” “Absentee,” and “American Canyon Sutra.” Sam’s entire band joined Cass onstage for his encore performance of Rancid Girl. Cass didn’t play much of the old stuff at all (interesting when compared to the set lists from the previous shows of the tour), but a lot of the songs stretched out twice or three times their recorded length so he went deep rather than wide. 

Jam-o-licious is the best way to describe last night’s performance, a motif most likely established earlier in the tour and one whose evolution I look forward to witnessing throughout the next 5 shows. They jammed out hard on almost every song.

I mean, have you ever heard music so expressive, instruments so perfectly harmonized, bass plucking so deep, and guitar shredding so articulate that it feels like an orgasm? Orgasm meaning the pinnacle of bliss? Orgasm meaning the raw, bloody life you often feel but struggle to put into words or coherent emotions until something not based on language does it for you? I was living in the pinnacle of bliss during the jam session on “Laughter is the Best Medicine” and again on “Big Wheel.” “Medicine” was so deep and so moving that my ecstasy may have culminated in a blown fuse had it kept going.

It can’t get much better than this: the joy of seeing one’s favorite musician happy, healthy, and playing like a boss… Enjoying being in Vancouver for the first time in several years and bringing all the musicians into the fold. Even though I felt incredibly conspicuous being the only person not wearing black and denim, which held me back from taking pictures and writing down the setlist, I had an amazing experience last night, and I kept having to remind myself that the novelty I felt could partly be attributed to being in a foreign country.

Set list (this is what I have so far, and I will fill in the rest from setlist.fm when it gets posted—this may be out of order):

  • Sleeping Volcanoes

  • Bum Bum Bum

  • The Great Pixley Train Robbery

  • Estrella

  • I Followed The River South To What

  • Sidewalk Bop After Suicide

  • Laughter is the Best Medicine

  • Absentee

  • American Canyon Sutra

  • I’m a Shoe

  • Big Wheel

  • Brighter

  • Rounder

    Encore

  • Rancid Girl

Itinerary Spring Break / Cass McCombs 2019 Tour

Tomorrow I fly out of San Jose International Airport to Portland to start my spring break vacation. Monday I’m driving to Vancouver, BC to catch the first of six Cass McCombs tour dates for his Tip of the Sphere 2019 tour. Seattle follows Vancouver on March 26, and Portland on March 27. On Friday I fly to L.A. and I’m catching the Hollywood show with my dad (not the first time my dad has accompanied me to see CM… he was also there that fateful night at the Eagle Rock Community Center in 2011).

The following week, the first of April, I’m back to work but driving down to Santa Cruz Thursday night to see the show at Moe’s Alley. The whole affair ends Friday, April 5 at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The last tour date.

Minus Sacramento and Santa Barbara, I’m planning on catching all the west coast tour dates.

There is a term for Grateful Dead fans that follow the band on tour, and a similar term for Phish fans. What do you call me? CM himself pointed out the Grateful Dead are a band for dancing… people follow them on tour, do psychedelics, and dance (…rather strangely imho). Considering CM’s history of jamming with Phil Lesh and co. at Terrapin Crossroads, and his side project the Skiffle Players, I feel totally legitimate in the artifice of my trip’s purpose… I’m just a person on a mission to find a release of luxurious imagination through ritual and repetition.

For now however… it’s time for my nightly haunt around the wide, quiet streets of Santa Clara.

2019 and I'm Feeling Fine

One year ago today I started my job at Santa Clara University and in less than two weeks I’ll be off to my first vacation (other than the holidays) since starting. Spring Break Pacific Northwest Tour 2019! Keep your eyes on this space to follow my groupie embodiment, à la deadheads and phishheads, as I catch as many west coast tour dates of the Cass McCombs Tip of the Sphere tour 2019 as possible: Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles, California; Santa Cruz, California; and San Francisco, California.

In this moment it seems comparable to the joy I felt tromping around the quiet streets of Santa Clara blasting the new album in my wireless headphones earlier this evening, but it will surely surpass even tonight’s euphoria.

Could 2019 be… the best year yet?