No one image epitomizes New York City in spring. Some days are like the grey dregs of winter, broken by intermittent fits of down-pouring rain. Then, on other days, the sun cracks through the haze to reveal the “charms of spring.” It’s a ripe time for the moving city to pause and take note of what has been and what will be. And, leave it to a wayfaring stranger to breeze through and capture the town’s mood exactly. Singer/songwriter Neko Case brought the news to sold-out Webster Hall crowds on two typically atypical April evenings. At the second show, the room was filled with devoted fans anticipating favorite songs (as evinced by their numerous requests through her two encores) and middle-aged couples pawing at each other — obviously on their first night out in awhile. From the moment Case ambled onstage to haul equipment alongside her bandmates, she defused the crowd’s energy and centered its attention. Her appearance — a faded Dr. Pepper tee, black jeans, and a mane of relaxed red hair — brought an air of loose intimacy that eased the audience off the balls of their feet, inviting them to kick them dogs up. She to was relatively fancy-free — her “costume change” meant accessorizing her pre-show look with a shimmering gold lamé sweater… which was conveniently disrobed less than halfway through the performance.
Strolling out a second time to start the show, Case met the audience’s warm response with a disarming grin and an easygoing salutation. She wasted no time and launched into a string of vocal features: the new “A Widow’s Toast” and crowd-favorite, “Favorite.” Ballads and technical problems slowed the first half of the set, leading to an unplanned “intermission.” Still, Case countered the casual start and quickly warmed up her voice, making two of her more atypically structured songs, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” and “Outro With Bees”, immediate highlights. As expected, given her lush, personal songbook, her selections yawned and stretched from end to end: pulling and releasing tension (“Dirty Knife”); relaxing with resignation (“The Tigers Have Spoken”); pointing out “duh” moments that we may be too self-conscious to discuss aloud (“That Teenage Feeling”); offering wistful takes (as she soared quasi-a cappella through the “I Wish I was the Moon” intro); or simply allowing her to pour out her heart (as she buttered the “Everything about you is bringing me misery” line of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”). As the set unfolded, Case fleshed out a host of romantic angles and images, not so much with traditional “Love Me Do” wonder, but with curious detail and cutting wit. All praises due then to Case’s gifted band for helping her cover the moods of the evening. Although they packed the stage (guitar, banjo/lap steel, double bass, drums and two back-up vocalists), the group performed with a gentle touch that gelled with the singer’s supple voice and instilled the feel of an intimate living-room party. Catching the audience’s attention with the tunes, Case chatted us up and exchanged hilarious banter with her “foxy” ladies, Kelly Hogan (who, pointing out a trapeze-looking contraption suspended from the ceiling, remarked, “It gives me the pee pee feeling”) and Rachel Flotard (who managed to weave together Case’s musings on Peeps, T.J. Hooker, and a Chippendales suitor). These comments offered a warm counterpoint to the evening’s starker musical moments. Casual without being flippant, melancholic without being brooding, hopeful without being saccharine, Case thus rallied the crowd around her tales while also imploring everyone to laugh it off with self-effacing asides. The approach climaxed as the hall bustled to rabble-rousing closer “We’re an American Band” (well, it was either that or “Whipping Post” — Freaks and Geeks alum, raise up!). The performance was prime pulled-out-the-ass rawk: Case something-something-ing through the first verse; Flotard commenting sharply, “What, are we in fucking Canada?” when no one in the audience seemed to know the lyrics; and, finally, a lanky fan leading the band through the second and final verse. The ‘classic’ closing was appropriate: a welcome-home embrace from the familiar after a long, pondering voyage. The High Dials opened promptly at 8 p.m. The Montreal quintet swooned and crooned through a set of rural Grandaddyisms like a small-town High Llamas. Breezy to the bone, the music was in fact timely for New York’s newfound warmth: pleasant springtime pop to plop in the box while you slip into your favorite cardigan, draw lines in the frost hugging your cold beer can and nod off in between the whistling keys. Alongside Case’s cozy set, the tunes allowed the crowd to filter out at eve’s end, gleaming with the faint trace of the spring’s first sweat.