Cass McCombs at Crescent Ballroom, 01/12/12

Cass McCombs and Frank Fairfield Crescent Ballroom Thursday, December 12

It's a rough night when the opening act outshines the headliner.

Maybe it's just because this particular opening act was especially talented, but seeing rocker de melancholia Cass McCombs take the stage following old timey string multi-instrumentalist Frank Fairfield was an adventure into the dull.

Here's the thing -- I really like Cass McCombs. The singer-songwriter has my respect (especially after he Ryan Adams-ed us in 2011, putting out two fantastic records, Wit's End and Humor Risk) but last night felt like the restrained intricacies of his songs are best experienced on record.

Despite his solid backing band, the mood in the Crescent Ballroom couldn't help being slightly depressed following Fairfield's banjo picking, guitar strumming, fiddle-shredding performance.

"I'm sure there's plenty of people in this room more qualified than I to be up here," said the humble Fairfield.

Maybe in resume, Frank, but not when it comes to delivering results.Seeing the traditional folk performer take the stage is like venturing into a time warp. If our calculations are correct, Fairfield is only 26 years old. He has a bushy mustache that filters each word he sings, turning lyrics into throaty mumbles. He pounds his leg into the floor creating rhythm as he picks. He tells stories of the "hillbilly music" tradition, making his show more of a history lesson than a self-absorbed desire for fan appreciation.

If someone told me Fairfield time traveled here from the '30s, I'd have a hard time refuting it. I'm not quite sure where you'd get pants that high in modern times. (Or guitar strings that can withstand that kind of brutal picking; he shredded one halfway into an acoustic blues tune, stating, "Well, you got the idea.")

Despite an early bout with equipment issues (a radio signal creeping out of the amplifier, "The ghost in our machines," McCombs noted) I can't really say that McCombs' performance was bad. His voice was on pitch and warm, and he and his band were hitting the right notes. It's just that the blurry, dreamy, buzzy melancholy didn't translate well when performed live in a dimmed setting of only about 50 onlookers.

The biggest problem with McCombs' performance is that he and his band just don't move beyond a gentle sway. I get restraint; I didn't come to this show expecting to be blown away by a pyrotechnics show or anything, but generally, I'd like to know that the performer on stage is still alive and not experiencing some phantom post-death nerves at work, with the body being controlled by muscle memory.

Occasionally, though, the crowd and band stirred from their snooze. "County Line," perhaps the best song off 2011's Wit's End, takes the down tempo, almost drunken appeal of his other, less interesting songs and combines it with unexpected melodies,. The song was the tipping point for McCombs. Sitting at gorgeous sounding electric piano, he finally decided he wanted to be there.

What followed was the band hitting its stride, performing "The Same Thing" and a new protest song for Army soldier and detained WikiLeaker Bradley Manning called, appropriately, "Bradley Manning." There seems to be a little twinkle of magic happens when McCombs picks up an electric guitar, but for now, I think I'll enjoy my McCombs at home, where the downcast, boozy melodies feel a little more natural.

But seriously, check out Frank Fairfield.

Critic's Notebook:

Last night: Cass McCombs and Frank Fairfield at Crescent Ballroom.

The crowd: Dreadlock enthusiasts and a handful of Colin Meloy lookalikes.

Overheard in the crowd: Crickets.

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Christina Caldwell