Neko Case | 09.24.08

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There are singers with beautiful voices, but Case’s voice isn’t so much an instrument as it is a gift from God.

 

w/ Giant Sand

The Pageant, St. Louis

When it comes to new material, the conventional wisdom for established music acts is to tread lightly. Wait ‘til the middle of the set, sneak a new song or two in there, and try to swing back in with a hit before the audience’s eyes completely glaze over.

Judging by her September stop by the Pageant, Neko Case must not give a damn about the conventional wisdom. The alt-country songstress snuck a whopping six songs from her not-even-released-yet album Middle Cyclone (due from Anti- in March of ’09) into her roughly 90-minute set that night, including five original compositions and a rich, melancholic take on Harry Nilsson’s "Alimony."

"Hello," Case said as she opened the show, "it’s been a very long time. It’s nice to see you again!" Her cheerful greeting gave way to the haunting "The Tigers Have Spoken," which bled into a dark slow-burner of a new song marked by funeral march drums and perfectly complementary backing vocals from singer Kelly Hogan. Next came Middle Cyclone‘s title track, whose low key arrangement of brushed drums and barely strummed guitar allowed Case’s voice to conquer the room. Though suffering from a bit too much echo in the early going, Case’s voice was in rare form and only seemed to get bigger and more powerful as the evening progressed, reaching pure perfection on the gorgeous "I Wish I Was the Moon."

Case wasn’t afraid to have a little fun with the crowd. A random scream from an overexcited male concertgoer prompted her to quip, "That’s my father. He’s a little drunk." The show hit a minor speedbump when Case forgot the words to the Dolly Parton-esque "Margaret vs. Pauline," grinding the song to a halt for ten seconds before her crack band swept back in as if nothing happened. "I was thinking about how I almost forgot the words last night," Case joked, "and I forgot them tonight. Thanks for being tender with us."

Most of her crowd interaction was more informative: "Here’s a song about birds." "This next song is spoooooky." "This is a very sad song." Or, most frequently, "Here’s another new song." Each song, regardless of vintage, was a marvel of economy, highlighted by Paul Rigby’s sustained guitar notes and Jon Rauhouse’s mournful pedal steel.

The dearth of old familiar standards and the omnipresence of spaciously arranged down tempo songs sound boring? Not by a long shot, and there’s one reason why: That voice. There are singers with beautiful voices, but Case’s voice isn’t so much an instrument as it is a gift from God, a big, brassy, wonderfully full voice that oozes with attitude, emotion, and prettiness. The band played its part perfectly, never trying to be showy or command attention. Everything they did was in the service of that voice, and Case sounded even more amazing because of it.

Returning to the stage for the encore, Case said "We’re gonna do some tuning and then regale you with one more new song," a delightfully folky number featuring just Case and Rigby’s gently plucked acoustic guitar. The rest of the band returned for a run through the Bob Dylan tune "Buckets of Rain" that proved nearly identical to the version on Case’s Live from Austin, TX release.

"I’m going to come back with the New Pornographers," Case announced before the night’s final song. "We’re recording a new album, and this time, I won’t break my ankle." (The last comment alluding to the New Pornographers’ stop in St. Louis last March, which Case missed after breaking her ankle two days prior.) The closer, "John Saw That Number," was propelled by a clap-along rhythm and banjo, giving the night’s final moment an upbeat, hootenanny vibe.

Openers Giant Sand proved an interesting counterpoint to Case’s perfectly sung tunes. Frontman (and frequent Case collaborator) Howe Gelb spoke-sung in a low, breathy register while the songs lurched along, sounding roughly like Shawn Mullins trying to sound like Neil Young. Gelb jokingly referred to his music as "songs without melody," which didn’t seem too far off, though his often witty stage banter (Sample: "Isn’t this where jazz started? [plinks out two awkward, out of tune notes] "That’s where it ended.") did a good job of engaging the crowd and kept the wait for Case to take the stage at least mildly amusing. | Jason Green

Complete Neko Case setlist:

The Tigers Have Spoken

(new song)

Middle Cyclone (new song)

Deep Red Bells

(new song)

I Wish I Was the Moon

Margaret vs. Pauline

Star Witness

Things That Scare Me

Favorite

Knock Loud

Maybe Sparrow

Dirty Knife

Alimony (Harry Nilsson cover)

That Teenage Feeling

Hold On, Hold On

Encore:

(new song)

Buckets of Rain (Bob Dylan cover)

(new song)

John Saw That Number

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