Friday, July 24, 2009

Cass McCombs + The Walkmen Live Review

An album and a few extra bandmates later, Cass McCombs is a changed man. He’s not completely different; his jaded, sullen side still peaks through the darkness in his eyes. Yet last night’s performance was a far cry from the set McCombs’ played when he opened for Jose Gonzalez a year and a half ago. Rather than sneering at the audience, you could almost catch a glimmer of a smile every few songs.

McCombs’ newer material has a sunny side, and a full backing band was better able to express the depth of emotion McCombs’ carries in his vulnerable voice. There were times, though, that I wished the band would evaporate so you could hear his smooth garbling and the sweetly simple song construction.

His music has the retro feel of Brill Building pop, with subtle harmonies and an echoed reverb effect on his vocals. In “You Saved My Life,” McCombs hiccuped into little half-spoken phrases that almost sounded – gasp –Elvis Presley-esque.

The Walkmen upped the ante and the tempo from the minute they stepped onstage. The NYC-based band combines the magnetism of the Strokes with the concentration and intensity of the National. Fan favorite, “The Rat,” is a great example of how the band functions. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser hurtled toward the audience with a pulsing energy that lit up the stage while the rest of the band stunned our ears with a fullness of sound that can only come from immaculate musicianship.

A full horn section (3 trumpets, 1 trombone) accompanied the band’s bass, organ, drums, and guitar mix. Instead of overwhelming, the sound was clean and polished. Not a showy bunch, the Walkmen didn’t clutter the set with stage banter. Leithauser was saving his voice – a raspy-yet-gorgeous wail – for the songs. Excellent decision.

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