Music

Neko Case Defies Convention in Oakland

Photo courtesy of Anti- Records

Neko Case's recent show at Oakland's Fox Theater highlights her dynamic album, Hell-On, in compelling fashion.

The Fox Theater in Uptown Oakland always has something of a resplendent aura thanks to the restored theater's gold leaf interior and the golden Buddha-like figures that flank the stage. The vibe goes to a higher level when certain artists take the stage, particularly those who have shown a demonstrated appreciation for the mystic arts. Enchanting siren Neko Case is such an artist here in the first week of December, now on tour behind her eighth studio album with 2018's Hell-On.

The new album features Case in her typically fearless storytelling mode, taking on challenging emotions and events that most would put aside in favor of more easily approachable material. Long an empowering voice for independent artists of all stripes, the album was also influenced by Case's readings of ancient history including The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor which details how the legendary women warriors were no mere myth. "We [women] were always there, we were just erased. And I knew it. As a little girl I knew it. As a young person I knew it," Case says at her website. "Now I know it anew with a ferocious, righteous, razor-sharp tribe of witnesses, and it makes me feel like a super-powerful human being. It makes me feel joy. There's an inheritance there that's really important, and I want to share it."

With 2017's Wonder Woman film detailing how the most famous of Amazons helped the Allies win World War II, it's not hard to imagine Amazonian descendants helping to turn the tide against the Trump regime's occupation of the American republic. With her alluring voice and bold, creative fortitude, it's easy to picture Neko Case as a spiritual warrior of light in the modern culture wars. The new "Last Lion of Albion" is an early highlight of the show, with a shimmering vibe that sparkles here at the Fox. With a mythical video that features a charming lion character facing potential extinction, the song speaks to the dire state of the environment under the Trump regime's corrupt Department of the Interior.

"It's been a super weird two years… let's not talk about that," Case says of the time that's passed since her last visit to the Fox. She goes on to praise the theater as "a top-five venue", nothing that "the bathrooms are cleaner than on a space station". This raises the question of what space station Case may have visited, perhaps inspiring the spaceship in the video for the "Last Lion of Albion". It's certainly not hard to imagine her as a space-faring adventurer or interstellar ambassador, singing out for intergalactic peace and harmony.

The infectious "Bad Luck" is another gem from the new album, a song that came together in troubling fashion when Case learned her house in Vermont was burning down. "If somebody burned your house down on purpose, you'd feel so violated. But when nature burns your house down, you can't take it personally," Case explains at her site. "In the big picture, my house burning was so unimportant... So many people lost so much more: lives and lives and lives," she says referencing disasters such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the Napa/Sonoma wildfires.

"Curse of the I-5 Corridor" features Case in troubadour mode, spinning an existential tale of love, longing, and self-fulfilling prophecies from her early years in the Pacific Northwest music scene on a Hell-On song where she duets with Mark Lanegan from the Screaming Trees. "So I left home, and I faked my ID, I fucked every man that I wanted to be, I was so stupid then, Why should mystery give its life for me?" Case sings as she explores the song's unique thematic landscape.

The set leans heavily on the new album with compelling results but builds momentum toward a conclusion with "Hold On Hold On" from 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. The song takes on more of a rock 'n' roll arrangement with a straight-ahead beat as Case reveals that "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers, I know it's unkind, but my own blood is much too dangerous…"

A five-song encore kicks off with the title track from Hell-On, a subtle tune with a soundtrack vibe where it seems like Case might be narrating a scene from Watchmen or Mad Max: Fury Road when she sings, "Be careful, Of the natural world, Nature can't amend its ways, It boils hell-on and then replays, Despite heartfelt springtimes of regret, The storm she still cries for days, Have mercy on the natural world…"

The show concludes with the ever dynamic "This Tornado Loves You", one of the evening's more upbeat tunes yet one in which Case sings out from the perspective of a destructive tornado that can take no prisoners. Tales like these have become a distinctive hallmark of her career, for there are few other musicians who are as comfortable exploring uncomfortable settings as Neko Case.

"We need them now more than ever," she says of historical stories and fairy tales that might not have a conveniently happy conclusion. "We need stories from all sectors. Stories without endings. Stories with multiple endings. Stories that don't end happily, cautionary tales, everything. We don't need Disneyfied stories anymore."

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