When Neko Case made her debut Austin City Limits performance in 2003, it was hot on the heels of 2002’s Blacklisted, an album that placed Case on plenty of year’s best lists. But this Austin City Limits broadcast may have been her true coming out party, as it marked the first glimpse many people had of Case in a live setting. It was her chance to live up to the growing hype.
Case and company delivered a no-frills performance that showcased not only her powerhouse vocals, or her songwriting chops, but also her good taste in other songwriters. Unfortunately, the broadcast contained only part of the Case set, as she shared time on the broadcast with a separate Roseanne Cash performance. At 43 minutes, this DVD is only a little longer than the broadcast, but with twice as many songs. That little bit of extra time makes a surprising difference.
Case is accompanied by Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel, guitar, and banjo; Tom V. Ray on upright bass; and Kelly Hogan (introduced by Case as a “secret hired assassin to make me sound better”) on backing vocals. The band, tightly clustered, uses only the front third of the ACL stage; it’s not hard to get an intimate vibe on the ACL set to begin with, but Case’s stage setup places the band just a touch further into the heart of an almost-in-the-round crowd.
Hogan’s presence also contributes to that comfortable feeling. She always adds a little something to a Neko Case show, whether it’s in her vocals (she and Case harmonize awfully well) or in her sometimes goofy / sometimes acerbic rapport with Case. Those patented, unguarded moments of between-song patter among Case and Hogan are few and far between here (the DVD’s most notable moment is when Hogan asks the crowd to swat at imaginary bugs, because her grandmother thinks the show is taped outside). In fact, if memory serves, this DVD release cuts out some banter that was in the original broadcast—something about packing your clothes with frozen peas to escape the heat of the stage lights, or something like that?) To see just how much fun Hogan and Case can have, check out the streaming-audio giraffe story on Case’s website (warning: plentiful profanity).
Surprisingly, although Case already has plenty of her own quality songs (along with new ones that would show up on 2004’s live The Tigers Have Spoken and 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood) at this time, she gives much of this set over to cover songs. Of the 14 songs here, six (Catherine Irwin’s “Hex”, Lisa Marr’s “In California”, Sook-Yin Lee’s “Knock Loud”, Sylvia Dee & Guy Wood’s “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)”, Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, and Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken”) are nods to other songwriters, with Case doing her level best to give credit where credit is due for each one. Granted, many of these songs had appeared on Case albums already, but it’s a good sign that Case, during her moment in the spotlight, doesn’t forget the singers or songwriting brothers, sisters, mentors, and heroes who helped her shape her own style. It’s also a testament to Case’s strong artistic identity that all of these songs feel like part and parcel of the same twangy cloth.
A few surprises crop up in her own songs, as well. “Behind the House”, a driving pedal steel lament yet to show up on a Case record, is very strong. As of the ACL broadcast, the band had played “Maybe Sparrow” only once before an audience. Although it’s pretty much the same version that would later light up Fox Confessor, Case is charmingly insecure and apologetic about trotting it out.
Case is in fine form throughout, and her band’s stripped-down approach (especially in contrast to the fuller sound that the Sadies would bring to The Tigers Have Spoken) is tasteful and effective. The Louvin Brothers-inspired vocals of “Furnace Room Lullaby” are as haunting as ever (I always want to hear the song as an a capella effort). “Deep Red Bells” is a pedal steel-driven showstopper, and Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” wraps things up in a neat noirish bow. From start to finish, the show is exactly what you’d expect out of an artist as talented as Case.