Last night my dad and I drove down Foothill Blvd to Sheldon, to the 170, and on to the Hollywood freeway, the same route I used to take with my High School friends in my ‘66 Falcon to go to shows in Hollywood or just to tool around because we were bored and wanted to be where the action was. Nowadays being back in LA can be difficult for me, but last night as we drove West into the sunset from my dad’s place in Tujunga, I felt very happy to do something so familiar but also new and exciting. Since Cass and I both call LA home in some capacity, I kept wondering how the idea of a homecoming show would affect the set list and my experience of the evening.
We were in for a treat: nearly two solid hours of planned and practiced pacing, plotting, jamming, and special guests. It was clear last night that Cass McCombs is a man who does not rest when it comes to striving for musical improvement, coherence, and cogency. Because I know he still has so much perfection to develop for his current and future fans, I will not say he is at the height of his career. But in a way, he is, because it’s never been so musically thorough as he was last night, as he has been on this tour, as he has been with this current band comprised of Dan Horne and Frank LoCrasto. Sometimes CM is a story teller, an auteur, sometimes a poet. Last night I beheld a professional musician.
First, however, we got the beauty of Sam Evian’s falsetto and the deep “emotional” thrums of the band, as my dad called it—the emotional aspect is what gave into everyone’s slight headbanging. For the first time this tour, I actually got to see Sam Evian’s whole set because my dad and I arrived so early, and they had a little waif there to sing with them, a Ms. Cohen. They sounded great again. My dad and I watched from the balcony and he pointed out their English rock vibe, tapping into that period just past the English invasion.
After the intermission had progressed for a few minutes, I took the plunge and headed down to the floor to muscle my way into a good spot by Dan Horne. I wanted to really get the bass in my head last night. Unfortunately the sound at the Fonda didn’t deliver the bass the way the sound at little St. James Hall in Vancouver did, but other aspects completely made up for it.
Cass’s set started off similarly to the previous sets of the tour, with “Sleeping Volcanoes,” “Bum Bum Bum,” and “The Great Pixley Train Robbery” opening it up. All that and the following “Estrella” were pretty customary, getting the business over with as my dad put it. Then we got to “Morningstar”: Leave your husband and come with me… the crowd went wild… then Dan did a nice solo on bass, and that’s when they started loosening up and we got a peak into the night’s potential. I started paying attention and taking notes when Sam did his sax solo on “Laughter Is the Best Medicine”—while that number has been extremely good at all the shows, Sam’s solo stood out last night, and the reggae feeling got me going.
I started wondering if they were going to do “I Followed the River South to What” but I don’t think they ever did! However, it was at this point that Cass goes, “Now we’re going to go way back, way way back… even further back” and I thought he was gonna do a Dick Dale cover or something. Nope, he did “Not the Way” and I couldn’t help but be transported to the period in which I listened to that EP on repeat while finishing my MFA thesis, 52 Sundays. During that time in my life, my disabled mom had recently moved in with me and my then-boyfriend in San Francisco. The only way I could get quiet away from them and our crazy Siamese cat was to stay up until 3 am in the dark living room listening to “Not the Way” on headphones. Yes I love “Not the Way” but the EP and that time period remind me more of “Your Mother and Father” which I obsessively listened to while crying and mulling over my predicament with my mom coming to live with me, and how my dad housed her for a year after my Uncle died. I didn’t know then that my mid-20s would be encapsulated in that memory, although I did feel like a major transition was happening in my life (one whose current I fought against but ultimately knew I had no choice but to submit to).
After “Not the Way,” guest guitarist Blake Mills came onstage and his guitar moves added an extra sonic layer to the night while also freeing up Cass to do other things on the guitar without having to rely on Sam Evian’s band. “Chinese Alley” was a perfect example—Blake shredded and Cass pulled out these long whiney notes produce by holding his index finger on a chord and the groove was deep and hard. I get this image in my mind when I listen to “Chinese Alley” of some magic frenetic dance that involves spinning back and forth in half circles while guitar glitter rains from above. We didn’t get guitar glitter but we did get bubbles! I think it was during “Medusa’s Outhouse,” or maybe the penultimate “Rounder,” that these big bubble machines spewed tiny bubbles frantically from both sides of the stage. On both these songs, the jams and solos really started reminding me of the Phil Lesh and Terrapin Family Band vibe that I’ve observed Cass be part of up at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. I talk about the Grateful Dead influence, and Cass McCombs has said he listened to the Grateful Dead growing up but finds the new resurgence distasteful, and last night I realized Cass is living more in the present that the Grateful Dead cover bands because he is taking all the best technical aspects of the Terrapin jam scene and incorporating them into his music. Further, on “Rounder,” my dad pointed out the way the keyboard echoes The Doors, specifically “Riders on the Storm,” which connects to his admitted influence as well. The depth of bringing all these American rock influences into the fold to create a new, impressive thing while also summing up the best of the past instates CM as simultaneously nostalgic and forward thinking. Mostly entirely my kind of mentality.
The encore was, again, “Rancid Girl” and I simply loved the humor in performance that came to Cass’s face as he spat out the lyrics with the white trash conviction of the song’s speaker. Truth and beauty in the most ugly, the most raw. Raw bloody life…
While I do have some complaints about the quality of sounds at the Fonda (I could not hear the sax or the xylophone springy piece of metal very well, and CM’s voice was a little off), as well as the drink selection (no cider?!), it was a night of real white people soul delivered on a Los Angeles silver platter… the audience was replete with those Grateful Dead funny dancer people off to the side (according to my dad, who saw them from the balcony), as well as some weird guys yelling aggressively (to which someone next to me on the floor responded, “Where’s that guy from?”). Upstairs on the balcony, aging drunk people were passing out and falling down, and downstairs on the floor, young drunk girls wouldn’t stop talking. It was the 60s all over again, 50 years later, LA-style.