Here are a few simple truths: the sky is blue, water is wet, and folk music is best when shared. Andrew Combs’ Edinburgh stop on his UK & Ireland tour was a treat, the warm tones of his and his band’s voices spilling into every crack of the Caves’ stone ceiling. Whether the audience already knew Combs’ work or was new to it, all were happily swaying to the music by the end of the night.
The show was opened by Paul Cauthen, a rising name in the country scene. It struck me, about two songs into his set, that I’d never heard a southern American accent in person before. There’s something about hearing a man in a denim waistcoat unironically say ‘y’all’ that really draws the crowd into the experience of country music. Cauthen’s crooning baritone set the tone nicely for the rest of the evening. With a friendly stage presence and a tip of his cowboy hat, he warmed up the audience and welcomed Combs and his band to the stage.
One of the primary complaints against country music is that it can tend to sound the same, and that it’s only ever about tractors and the Wild West. Combs’ music disproved those myths from the first song. His work is varied and poetic, weaving entire stories in his songs. His most recent album, Canyons of My Mind, is a product of his growth as a musician, solidifying the themes of his previous albums and taking him into new, unexplored territory. Despite the acclaim that Canyons has already received, Combs is humble. He says of his creative process, “I just wrote ’til I had a handful of songs I was proud of.”
This nonchalant attitude carried well into the show, as he introduced song after song in a laidback, self-aware manner. ‘Dirty Rain’, one of his more political songs, was introduced as his ‘tree-hugging hippie song’. Once again subverting stereotypes of the conservative South, Combs’ work mixes country ballads with political commentary. ‘Bourgeois King’, for instance, gives thinly-veiled criticism on current American President Donald Trump, and rings out with all the frustration and fury that many of us feel.
Combs and his band couldn’t escape all stereotypes, however, as they came on stage looking so quintessentially ‘country’ that a man in the mezzanine started to square-dance. A bit outlandish, perhaps, but for Edinburgh, where there doesn’t seem to be a particularly active country scene, this was quite the cultural experience. Personally, I loved it – the band’s energy was contagious. At the end of a night, I overheard a couple saying to each other, “that was all right, wasn’t it?” High praise from the tight-lipped British.
With a grittier style than his previous records, Combs’ new album introduces a moodier, more melancholic facet of his music. One of the qualities of his music is its commitment to simplicity. Much of modern music feels overworked, crowded by electronic sounds and dance breaks. While I can appreciate a good club hit, Combs’ new album mixes only melody and elegant instrument, giving us a record that feels suspended in time. This is truly an artist to look out for. If the show was perhaps more low-key than I expected it to be, it was still a great evening. In Combs’ own words, “come early and stay late.”
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