I rarely ever mention support acts in a review, but only one man has led me to break that mould – Frank Fairfield. With a barely comprehensible Southern American accent, baggy trousers and a belt buckle which would take Alex Turner’s belt buckle efforts to town, he sits on stage tonight tearing at a violin and stomping his feet Seasick Steve style, making me feel as if I should be dancing around a warm-stove fire. He then picks a banjo up, which recalls Seasick Steve in its banged up worn down nature, and plucks through a song about being a cowboy and putting flowers in gals’ hair. His performance remains authentic and gives an insight into traditional America, and the crowd, although mainly bemused, stay respectfully quiet, although he says “You didn’t come to hear any of this screechy shit.”

The shit we did come to hear tonight is Cass Mccombs, another purveyor of the American dream whose latest album Big Wheel and Others is so sprawling and ambitious that it could recall a threadbare trip around America documenting both the wilderness and traditional country life, along with the moral degradation that comes with life in the city. I make no bones in saying that this album was one of my favourites last year and that its mixture of rhythm and melody with its sharp political motifs was what drew me here tonight.

This sprawling nature is present in opener ‘Lionkiller’ from 2007’s Dropping the Writ; here an ever present slinky bass line forms the crux of the song, with Cass aggressively spitting over it. The bass line is hypnotic and illusory, and when the electric guitarist mirrors the bass riff it is like two polar forces fighting against one another, creating a disturbed yet enticing soundscape. This political slurring carries on succinctly into ‘Big Wheel’; a song with a similarly enticing riff, which recalls torrid industrial work usually associated with “being a man”. Cass is in severe form here, it is as if he is rapping a stream of mantras ‘I live by my principles, I stick to my guns,’ with confidence and aggression before wailing “There’s peace in the valley let freedom ring” in a beguiling passionate manner, before the song closes.

This ambition is hacked off manly-style when ‘Subtraction’ from his 2005 album Prefection makes its entrance; thiscass16editsemicleansmall2-LST094598 song is extremely indie-friendly with bopping drums, which you could equate with a whole host of  less ambitious artists and the distinctive style present early on is underscored as expectations are lowered. ‘Morning Star’ is pleasurable and inviting but easy to lose focus with, and the nods of my head start to wane as the songs’ formulaic composition becomes more pleasant than grabbing. ‘Angel Blood’ is flighty and well-crafted and its spindly high pitched guitar screeches are irresistible, but again it is another campfire acoustic song which I feel could have drawn more praise if it wasn’t played just after another song which showcased similar elements.

Ironically, the next song is named ‘The Same Thing’ and although drums are added which create rhythm by tapping the roof of the bass drum and snatching at the snare, there is nothing unique or pulsating here and every song feels to be amalgamating as one literally becoming ‘The Same Thing’, with the breaks and starts of new songs becoming hardly noticeable.

Although ‘What Isn’t Nature’ employs a more rockabilly style and Cass’ repeated screeches of ‘Woah’ are more enticing than what had gone before, it still fails to leave a mark and drifts over aimlessly. The night carries on in this tone and this never-ending amalgamation is only broken by ‘County Line’, where chatter ceases and the crowd becomes engaged again. Although, it is no faster than anything we have heard tonight, the rhythms are deeper and seem to be more entrenched in the American undergrowth, than the lighter more spindly acoustic ease which marked the rest of the evening.  It is lush and reproduces an image of an illusory America, of gold mines of the ‘old country’ and the American dream, and the wagging of a flower on-stage by a female member of the audience, recalled the images of flowers in gals hair and the traditional America which Frank Fairfield managed to reproduce consistently throughout his performance.

After ‘County Line’, the insular, reserved Cass, spoke his first words of the night introducing his four-man band, and for the first time we see him break from his mould, engaging with the crowd. Therein lies the main issue tonight, not in his failure to engage, I couldn’t care less how much an artist speaks at a concert, but in his failure to break from his acoustic folky mould, which although was broke from fleetingly, was never broken from enough to represent the true ambition of Big Wheel and Others, whose sprawling quasi-political nature sees Cass at his most interesting. Yet the clips about kids smoking crack, pledges to burn down temples and dreams of American utopia, where everyone has ’40 acres and a mule’ were not here tonight, and the only ambition on tonight came from unlikely hero, Frank Fairfield who in wielding his violin managed to transport us to another land, another space. Frank recreated an illusion of America which Cass often recreates wonderfully on record, however tonight his dreams of America failed to be realised tonight, and he and his band seemed as distant as the sand dunes they often sing about, failing to transport us there with them.

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Paddy Kinsella

Hi all, my name is Paddy and I have a love for everything from African music to indie to house (basically anything other than heavy metal). Gigging and listening to albums are genuinely the things I most value and love doing.