2008 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Neko Case Intoxicates Crowd, Offers Alt-Country Transcendence

Country-Rock Siren Headlines Wisconsin Multi-Band Festival

MADISON, Wis. — Whether you’re entranced by her fire-haired beauty or lulled into bliss by her sonorous voice, Neko Case is a siren.

Photo: ANTI-

Photo: ANTI-

Similar to her mythical counterpart, the 30-something, alt-country crooner lures the helpless in with her supernatural talent and takes full possession of her audience’s consciousness. But instead of dark intentions, Case means to first intoxicate and then illuminate to her seated captives the spiritual and emotional pathways that underlie her songs.

Those who filled Madison’s Orpheum Theatre on Friday night — including Garbage bassist Duke Erikson — fell completely for Case’s sweet seduction and all but the coldest hearts could resist her power. The hour-and-a-half show was the headlining event of the city’s inaugural Forward Music Festival, a South By Southwest-like event customized for cheeseheads instead of cowpunchers, and if Case’s concert was any indication, the weekend-long event peaked early and magnificently.

Since she’s not touring to promote a record, this impressive show might have some Wisconsin fans suspecting that Case and company were giving it their all to compensate for the fact that she had to bail out last time she was slated to play Madison with her all-star side project , the New Pornographers. (She had hurt her ankle.)

However, there’s likely a more a more practical reason that Case left the comforts of the recording studio to tour a little before completing her new album, which is slated for release next March. Friday’s 20-song set featured the very best from discs like “Blacklisted” and “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” but also six brand-new songs. This tour surely allowed her and her five-piece band to road test the material a little bit before adding the finishing touches. “Thanks for letting us test it out on you,” she said, after playing one. And if this is an indication of their studio chops, the record should rank as one of Case’s best.

Her musicians and their level of sympathy to her as a singer are so critical because delicate musicality embodies so much of Case’s songs. Her group — a guitarist, bassist, drummer, backup singer and a utility player (extra guitar, banjo, steel guitar) — create the twangy, spooky atmospherics that gently embrace her voice. Even the uptempo numbers rely more on sensitive interplay than cheap hooks and choruses. The songs all pull from a common mountain music source and the ensemble plays together for the greater good. Case’s voice, just as it is on record, is another instrument, but one that leads the way like a grand church pipe organ.

While there’s always the temptation to compare Case to country music matrons like Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn, her songwriting and how she uses her voice in that context is closer in spirit to Van Morrison. After all, she’s not out there singing insipid hits penned by Nashville’s finest hacks, nor does she want to be the Whitney Houston of country music. Like Morrison, her music is about transcendence. Case’s tastes might steer toward modern-day murder ballads and bluegrass stompers than Morrison’s soul/blues/R&B rages, but both of them are using their voices to ultimately highlight their allegorical songwriting imagination.

Her first song, “The Tigers Have Spoken,” laid down the musical template that Case and the group would follow all night. A smooth, pedal steel guitar hummed in the background while a doghouse bass and bass drum gave the ethereal song some necessary oomph. Case sang each beguiling line with crystalline clarity and the rustic attitude of a mountain call, hovering above all the instruments. She only powered down her pipes to harmonize with her backup singer, Kelly Hogan.

Each performance seemed more powerful than the one that preceded it, whether it was an old favorite or the new and unfamiliar songs. Her vocals alone were a marvel to hear. If any of these renditions were transposed from the stage to the studio, they’d all be keepers.

To be sure, her greatest hits presented here were as flawless as their recorded counterparts (or better), but she and the band would toss new ideas into the arrangements. “Deep Red Bells” began with the Calexico-ish syncopation of Spanish dance music before treading into the reverential melody and concluding with a mesmerizing steel solo. The rarely performed “Things That Scare Me” leaned more in the direction of a nightmarish, banjo-dominated bluegrass excursion into the dark backwoods, guided by Case’s lovely hollering. Along the same lines, “Dirty Knife,” which Case said grew from a scary story that her grandmother once told her, was a spellbinding tale of violence and suffering, imbued with a mystery novel’s allure.

Despite the songs’ sometimes grim lyrics, onstage, Case was simultaneously light-hearted and focused. Her stagetalk was jokey but when the next song’s first notes began, she was all intensity. Although she’d occasionally play a tiny tenor guitar or a white SG Gibson, her energy was funneled into fully harnessing her voice. Dressed in a casual, comfy navy blue top and brown pants and with her eyes tightly closed, she frequently pulled her head away from the mic to change her prominence in the group sound or to just fade out of the music.

Asked to pick a favorite moment of the night, the objective listener is given a roster of can’t fail choices. There’s the lovely innocence of “I Wish I Was The Moon Tonight” or the amazing vocal interplay of “Star Witness.” Or what about the singers’ extraordinary harmonies on “Margaret Vs. Pauline.” Even an easy-going, country cover of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” was a peaceful rollick and understated showpiece for the guitarists. “That Teenage Feeling” had naked cheeriness that was hard to resist while set closer “Hold On, Hold On” was a little faster, but just as irresistible as the poppy studio version. The only disappointment of the evening was when Case and the group finally left the stage.

Of the new songs that were dispersed throughout the set, each was carefully structured and delved into a different aspect of the Appalachian musical theme that Case’s solo discs frequently dwell upon. An unnamed midtempo cut combined the stark intensity of old-time country music’s small-town parables and the rhythm of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man” with a glorious refrain of “you and I” sung by Case.

The unreleased album’s gentle title track, which she called “Middle Cyclone,” was a waltz filled with longing and featured the line “I would trade you my empire for ashes.” An all-acoustic love song featured a rolling, fingerpicking pattern and Case crooning “I’m not the man you think I am.” Another had a title that could be “Maneater” and many of the attributes for a high-quality single — a flexing bassline and snappy drumming. One ditty, which Case said dealt with cavemen-like urges like eating and sleeping, had Coldplay-like Top 40 drive, with the steel guitar warbling in the middle range and pounding drums. The most peculiar was a lovably deranged storyteller’s poem with two guitars playing pencil-thin melody lines. “Don’t forget me,” Case sang like it was a plea and a warning at the same.

Perhaps this touch of madness can be traced to the influence of opening act Giant Sand. The group fit nicely with the night’s theme of seduction by easing the audience into the beautifully eerie, Americana world that Case and other fellow travelers fixate on. This Arizona-based quartet is the brainchild of frontman Howe Gelb and first formed in the mid-’80s. Giant Sand personified the spirit of alt-country music before there was such a label. Gelb’s eclecticism and Tom Waits-like sensibilities, along with the combo’s frequent lineup changes, kept the band from ever achieving the distinction that Giant Sand deserved. Now, they can watch from backstage as Case’s flawless voice and more commercial sound serve as ambassador for the movement they started.

On Friday, Giant Sand’s status as musical elder statesmen allowed them to function as an ideal introduction, loosening the crowd up with songs that veered all over the map during their 50 minutes. Gelb intoned on the microphone like Waits doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation, guiding the group through noise-rockers, piano-based desert ballads, heavy metal guitar showpieces and a little Johnny Cash rockabilly. A cover of PJ Harvey’s “The Desperate Kingdom Of Love” was a funereal masterstroke. “I’ll follow you into heaven and hell,” Gelb sang with dark desperation and he was unknowingly setting up the mindset and devotion that Case’s vocals would engender in the crowd.

When Case finally did decide to release those held captive by her charms, she concluded with the honky-tonk funk of “John Saw That Number.” The loosey-goosey rhythm and call-and-response vocals were not unlike a revival meeting culminating with an uplifting end. You might have heard some frightening stories throughout the experience, but now you felt wonderful.

In the end, the only one who seemed unaffected by this performance was Hogan’s dog, who accompanied the group onstage. He comfortably laid among the amplifiers and snoozed for the majority of the concert.

“Rock is boring,” Hogan said as her pooch awkwardly slumbered on his side. “Not enough squirrels.”

Remaining Neko Case Tour Dates (Giant Sand opens most shows):

  • Saturday, Sept. 20, Chicago
  • Tuesday, Sept. 23, Cleveland
  • Wednesday, Sept. 24, St. Louis
  • Thursday, Sept. 25, Oxford, Miss.
  • Friday, Sept. 26, Oklahoma City
  • Saturday, Sept. 27, Lawrence, Kan.
  • Sunday, Sept. 28, Austin, Texas

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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