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Neko Case + Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops + Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter

Cori Taratoot
Neko Case + Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops + Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter

Neko Case + Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops + Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter

City: Portland, Oregon
Venue: Aladdin Theater
Date: 2002-11-09
S E T    L I S T
Outro With Bees
[untitled new song]
Twist the Knife
Stinging Velvet
Pretty Girls
Buckets of Rain
Ghost Wiring
Deep Red Bells
Set Out Running
Poor Wayfaring Stranger
Furnace Room Lullaby ENCORE
Lady Pilot
Alone and Forsaken
What a strange world. A Saturday night in Portland, Oregon. Indie-rock kids lined up for a punk rock country diva. The 600-seat Aladdin Theatre stuffed full. And we're in a sleepy daze, like a post-turkey dinner tryptophan hangover. Imagine the Cowboy Junkies on downers, minus the humility (and the dynamics). Now you're beginning to understand what we're up against with first opener Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. It's not even 10 p.m., and Sykes and Co. have managed to kill the giant buzz brought into the room by the throngs anticipating the Great Ms. Neko Case and her troupe of roots-music acrobats. Enter Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops. Suddenly there's hootin' and hollerin' everywhere -- we're country bumpkins with Tourette's syndrome. City kids are picking old-time mountain music and we can't stop our knees from bouncing. It's like we've been transported to the pre-television-era North Carolina hills where kids drink moonshine and women rip on the banjo. With a voice recalling Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (not to mention a speed-freak mandolin strum), Jennie leans into Jim, their two Pinetops, and one shared microphone. We're whipped into a hee-haw frenzy. One of the juicy perks for Neko Case has gotta be turning on an audience like this to a foursome like that. And Jim and Jennie's set, a mix of traditionals and originals, injects the crowd with a much-needed adrenalin shot to the arm. We're back, we're grinning and awake, we're wired. Ah, the ups-and-downs of a three-band-bill. Awoken by the hootenanny emerging in front of the stage, I skip to the merchandise counter and ask the woman behind the counter: Where are these guys from? Her answer: Chicago. What!? It turns out Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops aren't actually from Chicago, but their record label is. Jim and Jennie met in, of all places, New York City. But tonight, geography is meaningless. I experienced a similar jolt in 1996. After hearing Emmylou Harris cover "Orphan Girl" by then-unknowns Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, I ran and bought tickets for the duo's Portland debut at the Aladdin. They glowed intensely and ripped live; they were eerie and familiar, nothing fake about them. What I heard on the stage that night isn't all that different from what's happening tonight -- there's a rush of authenticity, of tradition renewed by original voices. Add me to the list of folks looking for, and finding, solace in the ever-evolving pantheon of American music. In some ways, Neko Case and Gillian Welch are at similar spots in their careers. Forced to move into larger venues to accommodate the masses (2001 being the Year That Bluegrass Broke, thanks in part to the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?), touring hard on great records (Welch's Time (The Revelator) and Case's Blacklisted), these are two artists on the lost highway grappling to make sense of the millennial weirdness in the only way they know how -- to just keep writing and playing. Blacklisted is a dark and brooding record that makes for a more melancholy live set than earlier romps. On this night Neko Case is less the honky-tonk party girl and more the foreboding storyteller. It takes some getting used to. She plays most of the new album, and throws in a few cuts from the 2000 release Furnace Room Lullaby and the tour-only EP Canadian Amp. There's the occasional revealing cover -- first Dylan's "Bucket of Rain" from Blood on the Tracks, then the traditional "Poor Wayfaring Stranger", and an encore: Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken". The 60 minute set travels from heartbreak (opening with "Favorite") to thick pessimism ("Outro With Bees" howls: "Red wine is fast / At the lip of your glass / And I'm gonna ruin / Everything") and back. And even though the crowd's obviously loving it (chants for sideman Jon Rauhouse finally get a grin out of our leading lady), Case seems preoccupied with getting her sound just right. No more seedy stained 250-person haunts (Satyricon, Berbati's Pan) like earlier Portland visits -- we're witnessing the trade-offs of moving to a proper theater. Sure, those dumps forced you to stand up and breathe in the nasty stuff, but they also oozed rock n' roll. I used to drag friends out to Neko Case shows with the promise that everyone would leave the show with a giant crush on her. Girl, boy, nevermind. Gay, straight, who cares. Hate country? You'll still dig Neko, I'd promise. She's fun as hell, she's got a big heart, not to mention some atomic lung power. But now we're between worlds. And while the new material is gorgeous, I miss the intimacy of being pressed against sweaty bodies, jumping up and down with Neko, passing a beer up to the stage. At a venue like the Aladdin, she's more separate from us than ever -- we're not on the same level anymore. She's standing, eyes open and up and wild, and we're down here, smiling from afar. Weird times, indeed.

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