There is a wonderful moment that occurs within a road trip when night has fallen and you find yourself alone at the wheel, pushing towards a destination that still sits several hours away. It is a moment filled with self-reflection that can be lonely, peaceful, frightening or exhilarating; yet, underlying it all is a great sadness. This great sadness, however, seems to open up a window of clarity that inspires or crushes resolutions. It is the kind of sadness that, while heavy, is somehow life affirming. If this moment were capable of singing it would probably sound a lot like Neko Case.
The evening’s sold out performance took place within the warm environs of the immaculate, and somewhat iconic, Chicago Theatre. The venue offers an ambiance that is a bit of a departure from the typical concert experience in the city, at least for a pop or rock show. And, while Case’s eternal ease of character and down-home musical sensibilities seem more suited for the local barroom, that bold, towering voice she possesses is really suitable for just about any place it chooses. So while the seated, multi-tiered, Chicago Theatre was not the preferred choice of venue to watch a Neko Case show, it did offer a unique opportunity to hear those vocals in a forum with acoustics worthy enough to showcase them.
After a subtle but pleasing set by openers Crooked Fingers, and a brief intermission, Case and her band took the stage. Decked out in heels, a tight fitting black dress, and that defiant, fiery red mane, she grabbed her acoustic guitar, flashed a quick smile and began the opening lines to “Maybe Sparrow”, from 2006’s acclaimed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. “People Gotta Lot of Nerve”, the latest single from her most recent release Middle Cyclone, followed and this opening laid the foundation for the two albums she would draw from most often throughout the evening.
Generally the Chicago Theatre lends itself to a more formal or rigid concert experience, but Case and her band did all in their power to keep things loose, intimate, and even local (since several of the members either live or have lived in Chicago, including Case). As the band readied for the third song in the set, Case put her guitar down and gave a deep inhale into the mic, referencing her tight dress. Back-up singer Kelly Hogan quickly quipped, “Well, this is a sausage kind of town” to which Case replied, “That’s right, this is my tribute to the meat packing industry.” The banter between the two long time touring partners and friends was quick and consistent between songs, which kept the mood light and relaxed and continually helped close that space between stage and audience. At one point Kelly Hogan noted, “If I squint, this place looks just like the Hideout,” making reference to a small Chicago music institution where both ladies have spent time behind the bar. She would continue later on in the set, “I have probably served every one of you guys a PBR, y’all look so familiar.”
Neko Case consistently surrounds herself with accomplished musicians and singers, which on this night included the luminous Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel and Nora O’Connor who occasionally appeared on stage to sing backup with Kelly Hogan. The truest testament to their collective musicianship though, may be that aside from a few musical interludes the instruments took a back seat to those elegant, haunting lead vocals. Behind the band stood a large movie screen that caught projections of slow moving, rustic imagery to accompany the evening’s songs. Much like the backing music though, it simply provided a peaceful backdrop from which the vocals could be cast forth, like watching fireworks against a darkened sky.
One of the most moving pieces of the evening came via the title track from the newest album, “Middle Cyclone”, a slower number in which Case laments “did someone make a fool of me, before I could show ‘em how it’s done,” a line that is followed by a twinkling music box that was played on top of the acoustic guitar. Another standout came from one of the cover songs off her newest record. The song, “Don’t Forget Me” by Harry Nilsson, is a painfully, effective appeal by one half of a broken relationship not to be forgotten. On record, a piano stands at the forefront but live Case’s vocals were set against some shimmering guitar work from Jon Rauhouse, which also appears on the album version but is buried deep behind the keys. “Deep Red Bells”, from 2002’s Blacklisted, a track filled with that dark, sinister imagery that Neko Case conjures so well, was one of the more upbeat numbers in the set.
The show as a whole was a very subdued affair, with the audience seated for most of the performance, but it was no less engaging. It had more to do with the decision to watch in a sort of enamored awe than anything else. Live, the audience gets a glimpse at two very distinct sides of Neko Case; her vocals and their ability to chill to the bone and the woman who delivers them whose charms warm you right back up. It’s this duality that gives her music such an immeasurable weight. When she sings it is powerful, yet vulnerable, uplifting, yet isolating. Much like a lamppost at night her vocals are radiant, yet they bring an awareness of that vast emptiness into which they fade. When Case sings “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” it carries the same menacing sadness as if came directly from Mother Earth herself. In her hands the sentiment wavers between demand and plea but why bother to discern when you have already committed to comply.