As I stood shivering in the cold, awaiting the requisite i.d. check and pat down, I was surprised to see a number of folks begging and barking for extra tickets. More people than I'd expected had turned out on this bitter January night to revel in the sweet thrill of Neko Case's country croon and husky howl.
One-time Chicago resident Neko Case returned to a sold-out Metro crowd in support of her latest release The Tigers Have Spoken, a live concert recorded with Canadian act The Sadies, who happened to be in tow tonight as both openers and as Case's backing ensemble. In an interview with Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times, Case has said of her new album, "I really wanted to make a record with the Sadies" and that "my favorite Sadies experience is the live Sadies, and I thought this would be the best way to capture that."
I can rightly concur. Live, the Sadies really know how to rip it up. Bedecked in sleek vintage suits and silk ties, the Good brothers, Dallas and Travis, traded screaming, twanging guitar licks while drummer Mike Belitsky and bassist Sean Dean kept the rough and rollicking beats. The band's set was an enchanting trip through a dusty Morricone desert, rife with Byrdsian country rock and a wave of surf guitars spiked in psychedelic freak-outs.
Fans familiar with the Sadies recent release Favorite Colours recognized the ghostly grandeur of "A Thousand Cities Fall" with its twangy, mournful moan and loping, tumbleweed rhythm. Though capable storytellers and tunesmiths, the Sadies strongest suit is an ability to evoke a spirit with their feral madness. The Sadies' instrumental interludes are secret scores for weird ghost stories in the haunted house of twang.
Dallas and Travis, looking like country gentlemen callers, create an instantly palpable sound with stinging waves of surf guitar tweaked by a riff likely culled from the Munsters theme.
Just when you settle in for your western movie matinee, the Sadies launch into a Johnny Cash-styled, rockabilly gospel shouter, "There's a Higher Power." Travis Good has traded his hollow-bodied guitar tinkering for a fiddle breakdown. Then comes "Pretty Polly," a slinky, sinister murder ballad oozing with dark, trembling reverb. If the Sadies never wrote a single lyric, they would still be remembered for their hypnotizing sound. Rich in substance and style, it's a sound as instantly recognizable and haunting as a coyote's howl.
As documented on The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case's collaboration with the Sadies finds her inhabiting a world of dark and dour country, singing sinister and spooky ballads that shiver under the singer's customary croon. This night, Case immediately set a spooky tone, opening with the slinky, somber waltz "Favorite," a grisly tale of romance.
Slightly sunnier, at least in theory, was the country guitar riff and steady shuffle beat of "If You Knew What I Know." A listen to Case's piercing lyrics, however, tells of the bitter, pained demands of a spurned lover. "If you knew what I know, you wouldn't go to see her/ And least of all don't believe her when she says that she wants you." While the mood and tension swirls on the resonant rancor of the Good brothers' guitars, Case's impassioned voice cries out with a pierced and pained ache echoed by the sweet, alto harmonies of back-up singer Kelly Hogan.
For much of the night Case showcased tracks from the live album. The lonesome, sorrowful waltz of the Catherine Irwin-penned "Hex" saw Dallas Good's guitar slide the rhythm across the honky-tonk floor of Case's heart as she so sweetly declared, "my voice is all you'll hear/ only the sound of my heart pounding darling." Travis Good bent crying notes from his guitar, echoing the shimmering melody.
Borrowing a country classic from one of her heroes, Loretta Lynn, Case livened the night with a stellar take on "Rated X." Here Case cut loose with a scorching shouter spurred by a lightning quick Bakersfield guitar lick, a sexy swaggering rocker in an otherwise bleak night of ghostly shadows.
Case soon left behind her alt-country croon, embracing the mantle of the demonic and devilish diva. Diving deep into the tradition of murder balladry, Case produced a sinister version of "Furnace Room Lullaby" that creeped along at dirge speed. The Good brothers delivered their best gunslinger guitar riffs, strangling the notes with eerie echo and tingling reverb. Conjuring a chilling terror as gothic as Poe's "A Telltale Heart" or his most famous whispered coda "nevermore," Case molded her voice into a wrenching wail, holding and stretching her notes and syllables with stunning skill.
That's where the director should yell, "cut!" The band walks off stage and the audience, left aghast, starts screaming for the encore. However Case chose to end with the Shangri-Las "Train from Kansas City" a decent song but hardly in the spirit of the evening.
When Case and the Sadies did return for a handful of encores, the show seemed to spin off track. Ms. Case, who possesses the propensity or dare I say proclivity for yammering between songs, had been no stranger to her wont this evening. Now, during the encores, the asides increased, as did a need to continually tune her four-string guitar. Not that her rhythmic strum doesn't add to the tenor of her music, but Case's strongest suit is her voice. Let the Sadies carry the beat, Neko.
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