Cass McCombs played a packed Ottobar Saturday night. A veteran by now, his seniority was underscored by some of the people on hand to welcome him back to Baltimore - including members of Celebration, Wye Oak and Beach House, none of whom had came together as bands when the native Californian started recording music in Baltimore in the early 2000s.
On his records, McCombs connects, instantly, with a generous wit, a warm voice and truly gorgeous phrasing.
But at the Ottobar, those lovely qualities were obscured behind an artistic stance, one that feels genuinely motivated but, at least for a new fan, is a kind of a pain in the neck.
McCombs, we know, is not one for playing the games that record labels demand of their musicians. That's fine when you're listening to a record. But fans go to a live show to deepen the connection they've formed with a performer whose music they like.
Based on the Ottobar show, McCombs has no interest in deepening that connection through conventional routes. If the audience connects, he seemed to suggest, it should be strictly on his rigorous terms.
That's a valid artistic stance that's fun to turn over the morning after the concert. Played out over a very warm room full of guests standing with their coats under their arms, it makes for an enervating evening. And it comes across as bratty.
On their current tour, McCombs and his backing band - Will Canzoneri (keyboards), Daniel Iead (guitar), Rob Barbato (bass), and Dan Allaire (drums) - play in front of a wall of lights, something like a massive Lite-Brite toy, that casts them into silhouette.
Don't look at us, listen to us, seems to be the message. But being able to watch musicians engage with each other isn't a silly thing. It's a big thing, and telling an audience not to watch is a little bossy.
Once it sunk in that the lighting design was permanent, that it wasn't going to come and go, many in the crowd responded, reasonably, by moving back - toward the bar.
The construction of the set list at the Ottobar, which began with "Love Thine Enemy" - from McCombs' new album, "Humor Risk" - and ended with "County Line" - from his last, "Wit's End" - often seemed also to be a willful flouting of conventions.
McCombs is no doubt right that audiences have been over-trained to expect a certain rhythm to a set list — two old songs for every new one, an up-tempo song after a slow one. Does that make a conventional set list into a kind of crutch? Maybe so.
But will withholding from an audience the conventions they look for at a live show make them into better, more rigorous, intakers of art? Maybe someday, but a stronger case could be made for having a fun show on a Saturday night.