Last Thursday, Neko Case performed at The Orange Peel to a sold-out crowd — a crowd that pushed the definition of “standing room only.” Case, however, was perfectly cool, kicking off her set with “Teenage Feeling” from her 2006 album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Case performed with a stellar five-piece band including backup singer Kelly Hogan (a Bloodshot recording artist who’s also toured with Jakob Dylan). Case and Hogan had an easy rapport, bantering between songs. Case, herself, though not at all gussied up (she appeared in jeans and a t-shirt, free of makeup and hairstyling) joked about her own songs (“We’re going to try a song we haven’t done in a long time because it gives you a hernia and none of us have health insurance,” she quipped before the vocally-challanging “Porchlight.” Her voice, powerful as ever, was the obvious star of the evening, treated with little more than a delay to achieve the echoey sound of her albums.
Other highlights of the evening included true-to-album renditions of “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” “Fever” and “Hold On, Hold On.” In terms of frills, the show offered next to none. Case has a dry wit and a brusque manner that could be construed as off-putting, but the sardine-packed audience had come to hear her sing, not play hostess. Not only is Case known for her soaring vocal but for her smart, literary songwriting — few contemporary writers can match her skill. Case’s Orange Peel appearance aptly showcased both that voice and those lyrics.
Here is a guest review that was sent to Xpress by Jonathan Wainscott:
I love Neko Case’s music. Her lyrics are always engaging with a rich mixture of sweetness and longing, tightly woven without wasted words, leaving a clean, almost raw finish that begs me to take in just one more song and savor every second. And she can rock. That’s her sound, and in the days of MP3s and “listening” to songs via youTube and suffering through delays in buffering internet content, Case produces albums that command the time and space reserved for headphones and start-to-finish listening of the entire record. That’s the sound. The show? Well, that’s a different story.
From the first haunting note that Case belted out, my mind lost its focus on the music and I became fascinated by the show and showmanship (or lack thereof). The echo-chamber reverb that is the signature of Neko Case’s voice on her albums was there. Oh was it there. It was so thick it left me with the feeling of all syrup, no flap jack. Her voice was pitch-perfect, but the overly filtered sound made me question whether or not she was employing some auto-tuned enhancement. The artificial quality of the sound didn’t bother me so much, but it made the beauty of her voice seem so distant and such a small part of the overall sound, I felt like I was listening to Neko lower-Case.
After the first song I noticed Case and her front-and-center back-up singer, Kelly Hogan, turn around and lavish the drummer with a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy” bow and great big atta-boy gestures. I thought maybe it was his birthday or some other inside joke to which I was an incidental witness. After the second and third songs were over, same thing, and I noticed that the drummer wasn’t engaging in the banter at all. After the fourth song, Case stood facing the audience, put both hands behind her back, and gave the drummer two thumbs down. Hogan nodded in agreement. I leaned forward to my wife who is much shorter than I and said, “There’s something going on between Neko and the drummer. I think he’s new or something.”
I didn’t notice anything really wrong with the drumming, but there was a lack of energy to the show. Song after song I watched Hogan try to step on the gas by emphatically clapping, or fist pumping, or using a tambourine, to try and get the drummer to throw a little whiskey in the mix, but all that was served up was a Shirley Temple. No umph. The frustration was evident as Hogan took on the role conductor, coach and cheerleader to Case, and pissed-off music teacher to the rest of the band.
Case was not with out her own flubs. She tripped over a few lyrics and missed changing the effects on her guitar because her flip-flop slipped off one of the foot pedals rather than turning on the desired sound. Several of her missteps would have gone unnoticed if Case hadn’t felt compelled to apologize, and if Hogan hadn’t been so obvious in her efforts to keep the show on track. At some point Hogan admonished the crowd by telling them not to lock their knees. “I hear beer helps,” she said, to the audience, trying to get a boost in the vibe. The 18-year-old in my mind said, “It’s your job to bring it!”, but my real 40 year-old mouth stayed shut. Then they launched into the slowest song of the night. Eighteen year-old: “Are you f—king serious? Don’t tell me to shake my ass then sing me a lullaby!”
By then I had taken notice of the rest of the band, each doing his job with the same enthusiasm as toll-booth attendant. The music was solid and professionally handled, but the set list seemed more like a to-do list. Session guys, all in one place at the same time, but no band. And no band leader considering the solo billing that is reserved for Case. She looked like she just woke up, threw on a shirt special enough to walk outside and get the mail, and turned on the spotlight.
By end of the set Case and Hogan made it known that the drummer was a fill-in and then Case went on to thank all her bandmates. “All the ones I’ve ever had, and I’ve been through a bunch of’m” an apparent pink slip for the drummer who was made to sit out the first song of of the encore set. At the beginning of the final song of the night Hogan walked back to the drummer and gave him some dismissive gestures. He kept time through the song and gave a perfectly timed splash at the end to which Hogan seemed genuinely thankful. I left thinking, “I just kinda saw Neko Case.”
Oh well. Some nights are better than others. For Case, her performance at the Orange Peel was one of the others.