by Adam McGrath
In theory, it was a cool idea for Cass McCombs to play his set from the floor of the still-new South Philly venue Boot and Saddle. In practice, however, the layout presented logistical challenges that detracted from what was otherwise a musically satisfying performance.
As someone who was seeing this venue and this band for the first time, I was disappointed that the crowded conditions overwhelmed my appreciation of McCombs’ performance. With the band on the floor instead of the stage, the shoebox-shaped room shrunk to create uncomfortable proximity and poor sight lines. The clever patrons who stood on the stage behind the band probably made out best.
The problems with this choice were magnified when a fan standing no more than three feet from McCombs was chatting with his companion, sparking a tense moment when a large, grizzled fan chastised him in the middle of “Brighter!” (one of the standout tracks of McCombs’ sprawling new double album Big Wheel and Others). The confrontation continued in between songs, and after much profanity and a meek agreement from McCombs, the beleaguered fan eventually retreated. Obviously fans should respect the musicians performing, but this is a 150-person venue, not a listening room, and so again, the decision to play from the floor disrupted everyone’s mood.
All distractions aside, McCombs and his bandmates played a very nice set, featuring strong songs from the new album like “Big Wheel,” “Angel Blood,” and my personal favorite, “There Can Be Only One.” McCombs is a songwriter who can slip into a different genre with each composition, and the variety of approaches between melodic folk rock and Strummer-inspired proto-punk kept things interesting.
McCombs weaved in hits from his earlier albums, a necessity with a discography of his size. Songs like “Equinox” and “Love Thine Enemy” garnered an enthusiastic response from the audience. The band was tight, the two guitars playing nicely off each other, and the chap on drums really kept the tempos in check. I will say that the too-loud pedal steel guitar made me cringe on the high notes, and I’d rather the set ended with an upbeat song instead of a slow one, but all in all, the performance provided enough high points to counter the uncomfortable surroundings.
Alternative rock band Arbouretum opened the show, and their lively performance should earn them a few new fans. Closing song “Coming out of Fog” proved to be a highlight of their set. The title track of their fifth album, the song showcases the band’s range of instrumentation with plinking keys and a warm slide guitar supporting singer Dave Heumann’s poetic vocals.
The Cass McCombs show at Boot and Saddle proves the importance of the room itself in creating a memorable experience for a fan. What was meant to be an intimate performance ended up an arduous exercise in concentration.