LIVE: Neko Case @ MASS MoCA, 6/29/18
Review by Fred Rudofsky
The sun was setting over Joe’s Field at MASS MOCA; fire flies were zooming around the stage like luminescent roadies; and a massive crowd awaited Neko Case, whose superb new album Hell-On (Anti-), was released on June 1. There was a real buzz in the humid air, which Case later quipped during her hour-long set, was giving her “down helmet” hair.
Case, accompanied by long-time guitar and steel master Jon Rauhouse, was not only debuting new songs (seven from the new album) but also leading a new band. Opening with a raucous “Man” from 2013’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You showcased the drumming prowess of Kyle Crane and the intricacy of three electric guitars (Case, Rauhouse and Johnny Sangster). “Last Lion of Albion,” rooted in a deep bass line by Lex Price, called out the rapacious nature of humanity and warned “you’ll feel extinction” in its jarring refrain. “Hell-On,” with an eerie kalimba riff by Sangster and fine harmonies by Shelley Short, waltzed in its terse lyrical jabs at how religion profits from fear and politics corrupts the world, arguing that “there’s nothing so poison / as a promise” and then issuing this sly caveat: “Have mercy on the natural world.” Mid-song, Case and Short suddenly keened like avenging eagles in a free fall – it was scary and cathartic.
“It’s so nice to be here again at MASS MOCA!” exclaimed Case to resounding applause as she brushed aside her thick red hair before “Halls of Sarah,” a heartbreaking portrait of a “childless widow of a nation” who now is “a silent movie.” Shifting the mood and the tempo of the set, Case tore into “Bad Luck” – imagine the polar opposite of “Paint It Black” – with a confident smile. Her friendly voice soared over the bandstand, pulling the
listener in: “Are you tired of things going right? / Things going wrong? / Tired of trying to make everyone happy? / Too tired to sing your own songs?” A series of quick, quirky accidents, including “I chipped my tooth
on an engagement ring (That’s bad luck)”, followed in the verses. Case was beguiling in voice and wit, especially in the song’s closure: “And meantime / Right here in human time my heart could break for a one-legged seagull/And still afford nothing to you? (That’s bad luck).” Simply put, there is not a better pop song – clever, melodic and beautifully arranged and sung – to be heard in 2018.
“Deep Red Bells,” a standout waltz from 2002’s classic Blacklisted, evoked Case’s childhood memories of growing up in Tacoma when the Green River Killer was on the loose; Rauhouse’s steel guitar fills conveyed the
horrors of the crimes while Case’s voice (accompanied perfectly by Short) spoke for the victims, who were all young women. A tale of a tormented figure, “Oracle of the Maritimes,” as surreal and captivating as any composition by Dylan or Waits, followed from Hell-On. The fine line between the literal and figurative, fidelity and passion, continued on a devastating “This Tornado Loves You” from 2009’s Middle Cyclone and “Winnie,” a Conradian tale of a restless sailor’s encounter with an Amazon warrior “who held lightning captive / firm in her teeth.”
“Pitch or Honey,” a mini-song cycle about trusting the creative process, brimmed with pulsing bass and drums and flat-out rocked during the refrain by Case and Short: “Hey, I love you better when you’re wild / It suits you
better if I say so.” Rauhouse donned a twelve-string Rickenbacker and Case her beloved white four-string electric tenor guitar for “Hold On, Hold On” from 2006’s breakthrough Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Often cited by Case in interviews at the time of its release as her most autobiographical song, this tale of love and confusion and misspent youth pulled the crowd in with its unaccompanied opening hook (“The most tender place in my heart is for strangers”) and never let up; midway, Sangster played a jangling, prismatic guitar solo that called to mind vintage George Harrison.
With a shout-out to her grandparents in the audience, Case closed out her set (opening for Ray LaMontagne) with a powerful cover of the Nervous Eaters’ “Loretta,” a stomping punk rock tune with four guitars (Case, Rauhouse, Sangster and Short) that had not been featured much in her shows in over a decade, back when it appeared on the live The Tigers Have Spoken. It was an unexpected yet perfect closer.
Neko Case remains at the top of her game, as a singer, songwriter and performer. Get her new album, and go see her in concert soon.
NEKO CASE SET LIST
Last Lion of Albion
Halls of Sarah
Deep Red Bells
Oracle of the Maritimes
This Tornado Loves You
Pitch or Honey
Hold On, Hold On
Loretta (the Nervous Eaters)