Monday, January 23, 2012

Cass McCombs, Frank Fairfield wow the crowd at Haw River Ballroom

Photos by Justin Weber
On a night after The New York Times told the world about the secret that is Saxapahaw, NC, concert goers trickled in slowly to the Haw River Ballroom and whether is was the rain or the wait for the NYT-recommended diver scallops at the General Store that slowed them down, I can’t say. The cavernous three-story ballroom made the crowd seem smaller than it was. What the fans lacked in quantity they made up for in quality; they were engaged, polite and appreciative.

Headliner Cass McCombs mistook that politeness as a sign to play a more relaxed set. It was perfect for those wanted to sit on the bench and bathe in the sounds of steel guitar, but for those crowded toward the stage it was still a Friday night. Fortunately for those folks, McCombs realized he needed to pick things up and played the more rocking “Bradley Manning” before closing out his set with yet another relaxed, gorgeous tune, “County Line.”

McCombs mixed in songs from all over his discography - including a few new songs - but many of the songs he and the band played were from his last two records. Most of the time, McCombs' detailed lyrics were hard to follow live, but "Bradley Manning," written about an American soldier facing trial for leaking information to Wikileaks, was particularly engaging as McCombs seemed to put extra emphasis on his words.

I was impressed with precision and technique of the band as a whole. McCombs’ falsetto was spot on and even more enjoyable than his normal singing voice. However, the entire Cass McCombs Band had less energy put together the enigmatic opening act.

Dressed in a simple grey coat with old black wingtips, Frank Fairfield took the stage and arranged his three instruments - fiddle, banjo and guitar - on either side of his chair. He played one song with the fiddle, then one with the banjo and then one with the guitar and he repeated this rotation the entire set.

His music seems to start meekly. Fairfield sings quietly, preferring to play his instrument quieter when he needs to sing rather than singing louder, and he trails off at the end of phases. He taps his foot persistently and that tap bores itself into the audiences’ head. He weaves three instruments — voice, string, black wingtips — together to great effect. He was un-amplified, except for one lone mic, and the crowd had to creep closer to hear the lyrics, which often included a bit of humor (“If the river was whisky and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up”).

There were times when Fairfield felt like a quiet ghost in an old mill, but just as often he turned into a devil. His foot taps became stomps, his bowing and plucking picked up speed and he looked out over that big mustache with a fiery glare (although it would occasionally turn into a knowing smirk). This led to lots of hoots, hollers and stomps from the crowd as Fairfield continued to whip them into a frenzy. With sweat dripping down his brow and hair coming loose from his bow, he closed his set with a furious medley of “Rye Whiskey” and a Texas fiddle tune. The crowd wanted more, but they couldn’t have it.

It’s fitting that Fairfield was the first to play the Haw River Ballroom after their 15 minutes of fame. In Saxapahaw, what’s old is new again and Fairfield brings new life to American folk music not heard by many alive today. Before “In The Cottage By The Sea,” he described the song — written in the 1870s — as nostalgic for simpler times and I realized — as I’m sure many visitors to Saxapahaw this night did — that the past almost always looks better in the present, whether that present is 1870 or 2012.

Cass McCombs setlist
Love Thine Enemy
? (“Satan is my toy. Jesus is my boy.”)
Buried Alive
Robin Egg Blue
City of Brotherly Love
Bradley Manning
County Line

Frank Fairfield setlist
-Southwest fiddle tune -> Sally Ann
Little Liza Jane
When the Rose Blooms Again
Sally Goodin
Goodby Booze Forevermore
In The Cottage By The Sea
Poor Benny
Call Me a Dog When I’m Gone
Rye Whisky -> Texas fiddle tune

Frank Fairfield

No comments: