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…