In the summer of 2003, fresh off a rigorous North American tour with the New Pornographers in support of Electric Version, Neko Case ventured south to Austin, Texas to perform on public broadcaster KLRU-TV’s long-running music program Austin City Limits. Six years into her solo career, with three highly acclaimed albums, the additional attention of being the female voice of the aforementioned New Pornographers, not to mention the rather odd notoriety of being voted the “sexiest woman in indie rock” by Playboy magazine, it afforded the singer-songwriter a rare opportunity to bring her sumptuous, slow-burning, yet enigmatic take on country torch songs to a wider audience than the usual college radio stations and indie clubs. The program, with its classy backdrop of the Austin skyline and intimacy-enhancing black set, had long been the setting of many memorable performances over the previous three decades, including such legends as Neil Young and Stevie Ray Vaughn, so Case’s performance marked a career milestone. However, the inclusion of such an obscure artist (to mainstream audiences) also gave the already venerable series additional credibility, leading to the subsequent inclusion of such indie darlings as the Shins and Spoon on future episodes.
As it turned out, the broadcast version of Case’s Austin City Limits performance was oddly truncated, her seven-song set comprising half of an hour-long episode shared with Rosanne Cash, and consequently, seemed a bit more sterile than many had expected. Thankfully, the complete 14-song performance was released on DVD in late 2006, and clearly New West Records wants to make the absolute most of having a Neko Case title in its catalog (the ACL live series is put out by New West, while Anti handles Case’s own material), as her performance has been released for a second time in a few months, this time on CD. While one can never have enough Neko Case albums (and goodness knows it takes her a long time to write and record new music), and despite the fact that Case and her three bandmates put on a gorgeous set, the whole exercise seems somewhat pointless, coming on the heels of the very enjoyable DVD version.
We’ve all grown accustomed to that powerful, inimitable voice of Ms. Case over the years, but it’s still a marvel to hear her introduce a song in an understated speaking voice, and then completely envelop and entrance a room with her larger-than-life singing. Case’s vocals are clearly the focus here, as the accompanying arrangements are bare-bones at best, with the extremely talented Jon Rauhouse providing minimal guitar, pedal steel, and banjo; Tom V. Ray on upright bass; Case’s buddy Kelly Hogan on backing vocals; and Case herself on electric and acoustic guitar from time to time. If a fault of her early work was that she tended to over-sing at times, that’s not the case here; continuing where the sublime 2002 album Blacklisted left off, Case is in full control, belting out the notes when needed (the Southern Gothic-tinged “Deep Red Bells” and “Furnace Room Lullaby” sounding even more haunting here), but other songs, like “Maybe Sparrow”, which would surface on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood three years later, opt for more subtle brushstrokes.
The previously unreleased “Behind the House” is the one main draw for diehard fans, but the real treats are the six covers. Sook-Yin Lee’s “Knock Loud”, Lisa Marr’s “In California”, and Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken”, all previously found on 2001’s Canadian Amp EP, benefit greatly from Case’s relaxed, yet measured singing, especially on the Williams tune, which has case and Hogan harmonizing to gorgeous effect. The Catherine Irwin number “Hex”, which also appeared on the 2004 stopgap live CD The Tigers Have Spoken, sounds arguably even better here, Case and Hogan offset perfectly by Rauhouse’s melancholy, understated slide guitar work. Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” is a welcome departure, allowing Case to temporarily shed the enigmatic chanteuse role in favor of something considerably more playful.
All of the banter between Case and Hogan heard on the broadcast has been edited out on the CD, and although the music is what matters most, the briskly paced Live From Austin, TX does sound somewhat clipped, the introductions by Case that are included sounding nervous (albeit charmingly so), the applause by the audience sounding just a bit too polite. Thankfully, the music comes to the rescue for the entirety of this admittedly enjoyable disc, but it’s difficult to justify purchasing it when it’s best to spend the extra few bucks and spring for the DVD instead.
// Notes from the Road
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