Nostalgia, Frank Fairfield pointed out last Friday night, is an affliction to which few in history have been immune. Like a walking compendium of folk music lore, the old-time iconoclast could spend as much time talking about the songs he played at the Haw River Ballroom as he did playing them. He explained in a pithy afterword to his performance of the 19th-century John Rogers Thomas ballad “Cottage By the Sea” that the song itself was an ode to simpler times, an 1870s tune penned with a longing for the good old days of the 1850s in mind. The 25-year-old, Los Angeles-based fiddler, picker and earnest auteur of antiquated Americana would later reveal in a faint, almost timid voice that sometimes he plays the songs that make him feel most at ease, and given his surroundings, that particular selection was the kind of context-heavy piece in which history buffs like himself revel.
Like a lot of Fairfield’s actions, the selection and exposition seemed carefully measured. The New York Times had cast the spotlight on the town of Saxapahaw and its history that very day, and for good reason. Should the question of the most inspired performance space to open in North Carolina in the last few years, it’s difficult to dispute that that honor belongs to the Haw River Ballroom. The yawning room that once served as the dye house for Saxapahaw’s renowned cotton mill retains the best of the rugged, blue-collar characteristics of its former life: rough, unadorned brick walls concealed only slightly by sound dampening panels, service platforms doubling as wide-angle vantage points, clerestory windows just about anywhere there’s not already brick, the Haw River shushing along right outside and the aura of its past hanging in the air. All of those physical characteristics were purely functional at the time, yet today they imbue it with the kind of aged grandeur that can’t be contracted out and made from scratch.
Today, the most industrialized piece of production machinery in the house is the high-volume espresso maker put to work by Cup 22, the venue’s full-time coffee shop situated in the back on the second level. Given the general aesthetic, it’s a charming anachronism, much like that of Fairfield and his raggedy, yet probably incredibly valuable, cache of instruments sitting amidst the amps and electrics belonging to Friday night headliners the Cass McCombs Band. Dressed in high-waisted slacks and a vintage suit jacket, Fairfield is truly a man out of time. There’d be no difficulty in placing Fairfield in the mill’s turn-of-the-century heyday, running a lathe by day and busking with a tidy battery of fiddle and banjo tunes at night. Ironically, the 1850s that Fairfield sang of in “Cottage By the Sea” alludes to a time before the second Industrial Revolution, a time when monoliths like the Saxapahaw Cotton Mill hadn’t yet given way to the mechanization to come.
Then again, there’s always someone somewhere who’s wistful for something, and that’s where some misconceptions about Fairfield might originate. It might seem like he’s an overly-nostalgic sap wishing for a time when all men came equipped with mustaches of Ron Swansonian splendor and the most heated debate in music was between the clawhammer and three-finger styles, but that theory doesn’t account for the almost nave sincerity with which he approaches his music. It’s clear that Fairfield hears something in the sound of the crackly 78s of the time that can be transposed into any decade. He’s perfectly at ease behaving as if culture ceased moving forward in the 1930s and the electric guitar revolution never occurred, and his playing reflects it.
He doesn’t seem to hold much regard for the exacting, dutiful style that dominates contemporary old-time music circles, and maybe that’s one reason why he has yet to be accepted in that world. He plays with an almost reckless abandon, holding his fiddle with arms bowed out like he’s promenading an oversized dance partner, unconcerned with the clarity of his tone so much as the feeling. His right foot maintains the rhythm, thumping the floor with an uncanny self-awareness, with his left foot sometimes sweeping heedlessly during particularly excited flourishes.
He gave a temperamental interpretation of the fiddle standard “Sally Goodin,” kicking the neck of his worn-out, small-body guitar, and almost falling out of his chair while channeling a marching band through his fingers during “Li’l Liza Jane.”
He has some smart originals to add to an album of traditional interpretations with the release of Out On the Open Road in 2011, but surprisingly enough, none of them actually made their way into his 40-minute set. Maybe his song selection spoke to his partiality towards playing the music with which he’s most comfortable, or maybe he’s aware that there’s little distinction in his music and the music he interprets, but Fairfield’s taciturn demeanor and soft-spoken ways suggested a reluctant savant or introverted prodigy merely vetting out new ways to explore
his passions. Regardless, he has the backing of a respected independent label in Tompkins Square, along with having captured the attention of an inquisitive indie rock crowd.
At least a quarter of the room had vacated by the time headliner McCombs and his new backing quartet took the stage at around 10 p.m., not that that should be a slight to Mc- Combs; it speaks to the curiosity that Fairfield is capable of attracting. Those who remained witnessed a poignant, if at times lethargic set by the ever-mercurial McCombs, who is still working off of the two outstanding records he put out in 2011. While Fairfield was primitive and raw, McCombs was distant and reserved. Despite Fairfield’s entire performance being acoustic save for an underutilized vocal mic, his set nonetheless felt louder and more vigorous than that of McCombs. Both artists’ introversion manifests itself in their music, but McCombs thrives in creating an atmosphere of stoned simplicity. His songs are lush and contemplative, able to peck into the minds of his listener through deceptively familiar melodic structures (“Buried Alive”), maddeningly abstruse lyrics (“Equinox”), or modernized protest music (“Bradley Manning”) alike.
Possessing a perfectly average vocal dynamic, McCombs nonetheless is a master of his limitations. He projects every song like a father singing a lullaby to an infant; soothing croons originating from the tonsils rather than the gullet, but possessing an undeniable familiarity. His no-frills arrangement also speaks to his appreciation for simplicity in songwriting. Solos are short and snappy, serving as accoutrement rather than centerpieces. Band member demeanors are taut and detached, like vessels for something they believe greater than themselves.
You think you have McCombs and his band pegged four songs into the set, simply coloring by the numbers from a vivid palette, but don’t sleep on McCombs for he is a man of surprise.
Four songs into a set that demanded either rapt attention or nothing at all, McCombs issued his audience a wake-up. The sparse keyboard melody of the brilliantly crafted “When the Bible was Wrote” shifted oh so subtly, the rest of the pieces practically already in place, and McCombs engaged a soaring, bluesy southern rock riff, given lilting accents by guitarist Dan Lead. The band had inexplicably eased into the outro of the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.”
“We’re just trying to have a good time,” McCombs said as he shot a sly smile to the keyboardist who initiated a rare moment of spontaneity. Where his fans have come to expect pregnant pauses, coy pragmatism and, at best, subtle instrumental flourishes, it was a jam band ruse in a singer/songwriter’s arsenal. Or maybe he just got a little nostalgic for simpler music.
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