Two parts song-writing to one part mystique is a recipe that is only lately bearing fruit for Cass McCombs. Legend has it his record label, Domino, once had to hire a private detective to track down the nomadic minstrel between album campaigns. In the tiny handful of interviews he’s agreed to, in the scant few syllables he’s let part from his tight lips, McCombs has attested to a life as a wanderer, living a Kerouacian dream of friends’ couches and Greyhound buses.
The result is seven records in the last 11 years of exquisitely nuanced and multi-coloured Americana that swerves through folk, country, bluegrass, indie rock, lo-fi and Delta blues. Everyone crammed into the Workman’s Club tonight knows it, even if a tedious clump of Saturday night revellers prefer to chat loudly among themselves.
Most, however, are entranced from the moment their hero lopes out, flicks a quick “hey, wazzup?” and leads his band through the chugging ‘Love Thine Enemy’. Ireland has always “got” McCombs since the early days when he was gushed over by the likes of Richie Egan and Conor O’Brien. Tonight, State spots guitarists from Tieranniesaur and Jogging craning their necks along with dozens of other fret-fetishists to marvel at a thumby, vigorous style that’s all his own. ‘Big Wheel’, the lead track off last year’s mighty Big Wheel & Others, has its heavy groove stretched Eastward before the stoned mariachi of ‘Prima Donna’ is toyed with lovingly by the whip-smart three-piece backing him.
In full flight, the effect is unassumingly rich and gripping, but if it’s between-song banter you’ve come for, you’re out of luck. Just like his interview persona, McCombs is a man of few words; thanks is offered to the raucous applause with a quick but sincere grin. There’s something remarkably cool about him, a slight distance from everything but his music and the blackly funny world he sings of. Peer closer and a feint whiff of the arch is even detectable as he flails his strumming arm and puckers his lips through the salubrious jam of ‘The Same Thing’ before loping back the way he came. You can’t help but feel that be it a house party or a global apocalypse, McCombs would always be the last man standing.