LIVE: Neko Case @ The Egg, 5/7/14 (Take Two)
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Had it really been six years?
Discounting an April 2010 show in which she and her band had backed Jakob Dylan, Anti- recording artist Neko Case marked her return as a headliner to The Egg for the first time since 2008. Nothing could faze Case, not even occasional tuning issues with various guitars that she, Jon Rauhouse and Eric Bachmann had to sort out prior to a few songs, nor the absence of long-time bassist Tom V. Ray, who was ill (two members of the Dodos, the opening band, deputized for him on a few songs). Exuding confidence, playful charm and self-deprecating wit, Case had the nearly full house audience in a seductive reverie with her spectacular voice and a trove of remarkable songs that explored memory, identity, loss and the natural world.
The iconic moray-eeled album cover to 2013’s Grammy-nominated The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You provided the backdrop to the stage, and a ping of sonar samples foreshadowed the night’s plunge into the subconsciousness as the band took the stage. With Kelly Hogan to her left supplying the best harmonies this side of Emmylou Harris (be sure to check out Hogan’s 2012 solo album I Like to Keep Myself in Pain), Case opened with “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” a deeply introspective track from the recent album, marked by a candid refrain of “I wanted so badly not to be me” that made one lean in a little closer to the stage.
Lyrically, there are few songs that capture romantic ache (or obsession) as well as the surreal dreamscape of “This Tornado Loves You”: “I carved your name across three counties/ And ground it in with bloody hides/ Broken necks will line the ditch/ ‘Til you stop it! Stop it! Stop this madness!” Case’s vocal elongation of the tornado’s plea (“I want you!”) was as irresistible as the cyclone-like guitar picking by Rauhouse and Bachmann. “The Next Time You Say Forever” was served up as a chilling caveat and then segued into “Bracing for Sunday,” a wild David Lynch-like tale of a good girl gone very bad, driven by Dan Hunt’s kinetic drums.
A trio of songs also featured Case’s long-time affinity for animal imagery. “Lion’s Jaws” from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood moved in slow waltz time – “for the sake of momentum” as the closing lyric goes – to capture the wistfulness of a relationship gone with the season. “The Tigers Have Spoken,” oddly the only pre-2006 song in the set, looked unflinchingly at humanity’s barbarous disconnect from the natural world. “City Swans” examined a strained relationship in which neither side can be direct.
Bachmann played some understated piano for the juxtaposition of social classes in “Margaret vs. Pauline,” and Rauhouse his customary keening steel guitar on “Nothing to Remember,” which was featured on The Hunger Games soundtrack. The absence of Paul Rigby, Case’s virtuoso guitarist for many years (“He gave up rock and roll to breed!” she quipped about his recent fatherhood), however, meant “That Teenage Feeling” lacked the cathartic solo and swooning fills of the original but it nonetheless retained its message of holding out for a love that thrills. The a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” was riveting poetry, detailing verbal abuse and neglect by a mother towards her daughter at an airport, and Case’s affirmation that the child should never back down from being herself. “The Pharoahs” brought an eerie Twin Peaks vibe to the night, while “Calling Cards” (Rauhouse on trombone!) was a wistful look back on old bands Case had played in. “Hold On, Hold On” flat-out rocked, a harrowing tale of a young woman caught up in stultifying drugs and cynicism but intuitively recognizing that she could be better than her surroundings.
Vocally, Case and Hogan pulled out all the stops on the three songs to close the set. “Red Tide” lived up to its menacing title, flooding the senses with images of a Pacific Northwest town in entropy (“There’s a smell here that stands my hairs on end/ Dog hair in the heater/ Gas pumps and cedar/ and jackknives on the nine/ And seabirds choked in fishing line”). “Night Still Comes” sounded like Aretha Franklin sitting in with the Beatles circa The White Album, especially on the hair-raising refrain of “You never held it at the right angle.” A delightful change of pace, “Man,” rocked the shell off The Egg, with Case playing wild electric rhythm guitar, tossing her long red hair in ecstasy and grinning at everybody on stage.
With the audience on their feet, the prospect of an encore was inevitable, and Case generously delivered four songs (though, sadly there was again nothing drawn from either Furnace Room Lullaby or Blacklisted). Case joined Bachmann for a fine solo guitar duet of his Crooked Fingers’ ballad “Sleep All Summer.” With the full band in tow and an acoustic guitar in hand, Case admitted in mid-song that “Maybe Sparrow” was a hard one to play without Ray on bass, but she persevered. A surprise cover of Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues” had many clapping along to the brushwork of Hunt’s impressive drumming and singing the chorus, while the big sound of “Ragtime” delivered on Case’s dedication of “This song’s for you, Albany – it’s about happiness!”
Happiness, indeed. Let’s hope playing The Egg becomes an annual event for Neko Case.
Tim Mack’s review & photographs at Nippertown.com
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
The Tigers Have Spoken
Margaret vs. Pauline
Nothing to Remember
That Teenage Feeking
Nearly Midnight, Honolulu (a cappella)
Hold On, Hold On
Night Still Comes
Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers) (duo w/ Eric Bachman)
Harlem River Blues (Justin Townes Earle)
THE DODOS SET LIST