After an evening of watching Neko Case belt out songs about 20 feet away from me, it seems more appropriate than ever that her lyrics often dwell on forces of nature. Her last two albums have been preoccupied with images of tornadoes, killer whales, lions, and foxes; all beautiful and all potentially very dangerous, usually both at the same time. Standing there on the crowded floor of the Orange Peel, I got the feeling that I was watching something straight out of her lyrics – a force; bold, interminable, and even a little scary at times. No matter how good the rest of her band was – and they were very good – I had a hard time taking my eyes off of Case. You can’t stare at a voice, but you can look straight at its source. In this case the source was a disheveled forty year old woman, sporting a gray shirt, cotton capri pants, flip-flops, and a mountain of unbridled red hair. She looked like she was ready to go to bed, but the sound that came from her body was anything but tired.
Like any good fan, I had a few songs that I really wanted to hear. My choices were “Favorite”, from her Canadian Amp EP; “The Needle Has Landed” from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and “Fever” from Middle Cyclone. I got two out of three. She played nearly every song from Middle Cyclone, which was pretty much expected, so I got “Fever” almost by default. She opened up her encore with “Favorite”, which she claims is the first song that she wrote all by herself. The version on the Canadian Amp recording, which was done in Case’s kitchen while she was living in Chicago, is fine, but every live recording I’ve ever heard just pummels it to pieces. This rendition was no exception. She didn’t play “The Needle Has Landed”, but I didn’t exactly expect her to anyway; that track took me a long time to fully appreciate, and I doubt that it’s a fan favorite for most.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is one of my favorite albums and ideally I would have wanted to see Case perform the whole thing from start to finish. That’s not gonna happen. She did, however, play five songs from that record, mostly from the first half. She took on crunchier versions of “That Teenage Feeling” (her opener), “Hold On, Hold On”, “Margaret Vs. Pauline”, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”, and “Maybe Sparrow”. On the first two songs, the live setting really helped flesh out the immediacy of the lyrics, but that same setting stripped away some of the musical subtleties that made the other three so amazing on their studio counterparts. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the venue, which has a bit of an echo, or if it was an issue stemming from new arrangements. This isn’t to say that the live versions were bad; they just lacked the punch that I normally get from them.
The tracks from Middle Cyclone, however, all sounded great. Cyclone is a more direct record; songs like “This Tornado Loves You”, “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, and “I’m an Animal” all have unfussy arrangements that work great in a live setting. Her take on “Red Tide” was an unexpected highlight for me, with its pulsating rhythms seeming to fill the venue until it was about to burst. The sheer power of the sound was enough to send shivers across my body.
Case did play a few new songs. She never gave out any names, but the best was a slow, sparse song dedicated to all of the band members that she’s ever worked with. The song had a special dedication to her drummer that night, Charles, who had been recruited into the band as an emergency replacement when her regular drummer had to leave tour. Charles (I don’t remember the last name) had only been on tour for a couple days, but his playing was flawless. In a graceful, funny, and deserved gesture during the first few numbers, Case and backup singer Kelly Hogan would bow down to him in between songs.
Rounding out the set was “Porchlight”, the only representative from Case’s first three albums; “The Tigers Have Spoken”, which is featured on the live recording of the same name; and “Knock Loud” a cover found on Canadian Amp.
I was surprised by two things in seeing Neko Case live. The first is that her voice is better than advertised. When she doesn’t have an instrument in her hands, Case approaches the microphone head first, planting her feet and arms back almost as if she is propelling her entire body into the sound coming from her mouth. The image is shocking because the voice is as real (no autotune here) and pure as anything you’ll hear on the studio recordings. It’s a weak compliment to say that Neko Case has an incredible voice; more to her credit is that fact that she never overuses it. At every moment she is in total control and every note and change is in the service of the song. There’s no showboating with Case. The second surprise is that the person of Neko Case, at least what we see in performance, is not at all like the songs that she sings. Case is a buoyant personality, almost flakey. Her rapport with Kelly Hogan was light and funny throughout, and it contrasted in pleasant and strange ways with the seriousness of the music.
When the concert finally ended with “Knock Loud”, I knew I’d pay to see her again in a heartbeat. As she had done with “Red Tide”, Case and her band pushed the sound of that song to the brink, brining the arrangement to an incredible crescendo and ending it abruptly. The whole thing was over far too fast.
So, Neko, can you just skip that show in Charlotte with My Morning Jacket and come back to Asheville?