LIVE: Neko Case @ The Egg, 5/8/14

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Review and photographs by Tim Mack

As “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!” panelists go, none rock harder than Neko Case.

Along with her critically acclaimed solo work, the Virginia-born singer-songwriter is known for her sharp wit and engaging personality, traits that earned her the rare distinction of being both a guest and panelist on NPR’s weekly news quiz. She’s also been a featured guest on Comedy Central’s “@midnight,” a contestant on an Australian music quiz show called “Spicks and Specks,” and she’s even been a voice on the animated series “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” But last week when she rolled into The Egg, it was all about music.

Supported by a tight, yet short-handed backing band, Case spun through 22 songs pulled largely from her last two releases, 2009′s Middle Cyclone and 2013′s eccentrically titled The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, both of which were Grammy nominated. But for the packed house of dedicated Neko-philes in the Hart Theatre, whether hits or deep cuts, it was all good to them.

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The performance of the songs was focused and taut, but the time between songs… well, this wasn’t Vegas. If the guitars needed tuning (and they often did), the band stopped to tune them. It led to extended breaks that could have tested a less patient crowd, but no one in the seats seemed to be in any hurry.

It’s unfortunate Case has come to prominence in age of the digital download. That means fewer people will casually pull the liner notes from a CD case or record gate-fold and read her lyrics. This is a shame, because they deserve separate consideration from the music. Seeing her in person helps draw your ear to works like “City Swans,” “The Pharaohs” and main set closer “Man,” which was one of the only all-out rockers of the evening.

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If the lyrics, the music and Case’s unique voice weren’t enough for you, the night was a veritable cavalcade of beautiful and unusual guitars. Instruments of the four, five, six, seven and 12-string variety found their way to the stage at one point or another. Neko herself played a seven-string Martin acoustic, a four-string tenor guitar and a four-string electric, complete with whammy bar. Sideman Jon Rauhouse played (among other things) the banjo, the pedal steel and a custom 12-string electric that not even the stage crew could identify.

But Neko’s show is mainly about the vocals, and she couldn’t pull it off without the voice that supports hers, during both the songs and the space between. Back-up singer Kelly Hogan carries the harmonies that are a signature part of Neko’s sound, and the two blend as well on stage as they do on record. Hogan is also the rare back-up singer who has both the license and stage presence to chat with the band and audience as much as the lead singer herself.

The backing band was missing bassist Tom V. Ray on this night, but members of the opening act, the Dodos, stepped in to fill the void when needed. The Dodos – a California-based group that ironically does not actually play with a bass player themselves – were big on syncopated beats and sequenced guitar licks during their 50-minute set. I’ve never met the members of the band, but I’m going to guess have some Sonic Youth and Radiohead albums in their CD collections.

This was not Case’s first trip to The Egg, and it likely won’t be her last, because by the end of the night it was clear Neko had enjoyed her trip to Albany as much as the crowd did.

SECOND OPINIONS:
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Case sang with the clarity of a country singer but the force of a rocker in up tunes, or folkie subtlety in ballads. Some songs were short as country hits, with few stretching past radio length for the band to take wing and show they really know how. The new ‘Bracing for Sunday’ and the vintage ‘Pharoahs’ gave Rauhouse and Bachmann time to shine. Otherwise the focus was on Case’s voice and songs in statements so concise that some seemed abbreviated. ‘City Swans’ and ‘Teenage Feeling’ country-rocked gracefully, all in and strong; but some of Case’s most striking songs sounded sparser — especially the devastating ‘After Midnight, Honolulu.’ The lament of an unloved child, this plumbed the depths in a close-harmony vocal duet by Case and Hogan. Later, Case dueted with Bachmann in the wounded nostalgia of his really touching ‘Sleep All Summer Long.’ Case freely renovated older songs, singing ‘Pharoahs’ a good deal slower than on ‘Middle Cyclone,’ but staying closer to the script in newer songs. At the end, though, with two of the Dodos singing harmonies, she lifted the vintage ‘Ragtime’ to true majesty, a perfect frame for her mighty voice.”

NEKO CASE SET LIST
Where Did I Leave That Fire
This Tornado Loves You
The Next Time You Say Forever
Bracing for Sunday
Lion’s Jaws
The Tigers Have Spoken
City Swans
Margaret vs. Pauline
Local Girl
Nothing to Remember
That Teenage Feeking
Nearly Midnight, Honolulu (a cappella)
The Pharaohs
Calling Cards
Hold On, Hold On
Red Tide
Night Still Comes
Man
ENCORES
Sleep All Summer (Eric Bachman) (duo w/ Eric Bachman)
Maybe Sparrow
Harlem River Blues (Justin Townes Earle)
Ragtime

THE DODOS SET LIST
Black Night
Substance
Confidence
Stranger
Relief
The Current
Walking
???
Good

Neko Case

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