Concert Revue- Neko Case at Liberty Hall

Photo April Fleming/The Pitch

Neko Case’s latest album The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You found the “part-time” New Pornographers member doggedly chasing her muse to all four corners, searching for: love, confidence, and parental guidance. Opening with penultimate The Worse Things Get… track “Where Did I Leave That Fire” was an act of supreme confidence, a bellowing submarine sound issued a false-start to an audience that was ready to run. Follow-up “This Tornado Loves You” with John Rauhouse’s consciously strummed banjo allowed Case the chance for her first vocal volleys. Her voice can be a rafter shaking entity and when it broke lose I half expected her band to stop dead in their tracks.

The band did steady for Fox Confessor Brings the Flood cut “Lion’s Jaws”, slipping into slow dance territory. Here Case’s sighing incantations sound-tracked another turn, as the clock ticked closer to midnight. “Teenage Feeling” stole further into the past, transported by Rauhouse’s rollicking banjo and Case’s yearning voice. The song was one of the night’s many fighters, refusing to throw in the towel and firmly committed to “holding on to that teenage feeling.”

2000′s “Set Out Running” possesses a similar longing to shake off the weight of the past and start anew. “I just can’t shake this feeling that I’m nothing in your eyes” Case sang from the precipice, pushed to the edge by twanging guitar and mourning pedal steel. Soon only her desolate yawp remained, echoing out of every dark cavern. Muted trombone in “Calling Cards” cast a ghostly pallor, giving the final shot “I’ve got calling cards from twenty years ago” a greater wallop than the studio version could ever pack.

The entire night wasn’t a funeral procession however. Case and vocal-collaborator/comedic foil Kelly Hogan kept up an impeccable rapport that deterred some of the deathly musings suggesting “a banjo is a guitar that wants to show you a dead body.” “City Swans” ascent was steady, taking off with Case’s fluttering vocals and a trotting guitar part. By the time chorus came, Case disappeared into a blustery cloud and her unease “I can’t look at you straight on” seemed self-confident.  Whether between banter or in the midst of the maelstrom, Case has an incredible ability to mask any doubt.

If one song projected an unshakable certainty, it was “Man”. An assault of self-assurance and gender reversals, The Worse Things Get… highlight shone on stage offering the authoritative version. Case’s dirtkicking choked out the audience and the band hightailed it to the nearest exit.

Coming back out to rapturous applause, the band provided the ultimate study in contrast to “Man” with “Nearly Midnight Honolulu”. Clapping died when the acapella number began as a hush fell over Liberty Hall. During a showstopper of any set, there’s occasional seat fidgeting or hushed murmuring. Not in this instance. It was quiet enough to hear the audience’s collective heartbeat, if a pulse remained at all. I can’t recall breathing once, each inhalation was stolen by Case to capture the abusive parent tale. Case and company continued for four more songs, but “Nearly Midnight Honolulu” became the night’s unquestionable apotheosis.

Reviewing The Worse Things Get… I wrote “confidence can’t come overnight.” That said, the night’s starkest moments still contained an overwhelming courage to display such unadorned emotion. If last night’s set at Liberty Hall proved anything it’s that Case has never let the reins of her driving confidence go.

Setlist:
1. “Where Did I Leave That Fire?”
2. “This Tornado Loves You”
3. “Bracing for Sunday”
4. “Lion’s Jaws”
5. “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
6. “That Teenage Feeling”
7. “Set Out Running”
8. “The Pharaohs”
9. “City Swans”
10. “Maybe Sparrow”
11. “Red Tide”
12. “Wild Creatures”
13. “Calling Cards”
14. “Deep Red Bells”
15. “Hold On, Hold On”
16. “Night Still Comes”
17. “Man”

18. “Nearly Midnight Honolulu”
19. “Local Girl”
20. “Ragtime”

21. ” I Wish I Was The Moon”
22. “Margaret vs. Pauline”

In the body above I mentioned Case and Kelly Hogan’s “impeccable rapport”, past being an austere musical performance the show was packed with quotacular moments, a few of which I’ve provided below:

“A banjo is a guitar that wants to show you a dead body.”

“That guitar is a d***.”- Said by Case after dropping her weathered acoustic guitar.

“This is more like 5th base. 5th base is when you let me drive your truck and you’re not in it…6th base is you go to the store and pick up tampons for me.”- Case assuming the role of baseball commentator after someone yelled out “2nd base” when she suggested the next song would be taking the audience out to “dinner and a movie.”

“All the bosoms laid out before me, were I a poor man t’would have been a feast.”- Case picking up an English brogue to lampoon Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee.

“The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”- Neko Case

Six albums deep into her solo career, Neko Case’s earthen voice is synonymous with perpetuity. The New Pornographers member delivering a lamenting ballad from some 19th Century saloon is as probable as storming through a set at South by Southwest circa 2013. In a muddy swamp or ornate concert hall she’s equally comfortable. Case is a conjurer and her voice is the conduit. Odd then she began her career sitting behind drum-kits in Canadian bands Cub and Maow. Her reticence to take to the mic conveys a lack of confidence. If there’s a touchstone between this reluctance and Case’s new LP The Worst Things Get… it’s the lack of confidence.
Opener “Wild Creatures” finds Case “fighting to be wise”. A mother’s reassuring hands fails to corral Case as a slow electric country trot becomes a gallop.  Case is quizzical during follow-up “Night Still Comes”. Masonry can’t make sense of Case’s state, nor can she, always tilting things to an unrecognizable angle. Middle Cyclone saw Case on a Beatrix Kiddo revenge quest, but she sheathes the samurai sword here. Her insatiable “bloodlust” becomes a thirst for understanding, in hopes of restoring her declining confidence.
“Man” is a breakneck track where Case discovers understanding through unrelenting poise. I’ve toyed with the notion: Case is Feist if she didn’t take s*** off of anyone, and “Man” drives the point home at 110MPH in a dirt-kicking ’67 Chevy. Feist couldn’t commit to finger-wagging on “Limit to Your Love”; Case aided by liquid confidence inverts a finger to those who spurn her. “And if I’m dips**t drunk on pink perfume, Then I’m the man in the f***ing moon’, Cause you didn’t’ know what a man was, until I showed you” she firebreathes near the song’s end. It’s a kick you in the teeth moment, leaving you chuckling as the warm blood begins to flow from your mouth.
Quests inevitably have their peaks and valleys and The Worse Things Get is no different. Subdued follow-up “I’m From Nowhere” hits the E-brake after the wild-ride of “Man”. Case’s considered strumming brings the doubt back like a bad check, she’s not sure “what I wanna be” and stares intently at the ground while admitting to being “from nowhere.” At first glance “wasted it complaining like a trust-fund kid” is lacerating, but further inspection reveals a bubo.
However, a diminutive bubo can be just as ferociousness as the scant “Calling Cards” and “Afraid” prove. They’re two songs of several on The Worse Things Get to clock in at less than three minutes and still manage to wring out the last drops of agony. “Afraid” attempts to “Man”s swagger via double-edged aphorisms: “you are beautiful and you are alone.” Only subtle piano and autoharp flourishes accompany Case, assuring solitude. “We’ll all be together, even when we’re not together,” Case sings on the muted “Calling Cards”. Rifling through scenes of a long-distance romance Case’s lens lingers on the final shot, “I’ve got calling cards from twenty years ago.” For all the power distance lords over a relationship, it’s time that matters more.
The quest has a layover in the Pacific when her attention diverts to motherhood for the sobering acapella number “Nearly Midnight Honolulu” One impetus for the album’s constant confusion are the passings of Case’s mother and father, neither of whom Case was close to. “I don’t have any love for either of my parents, so having them die was extra-weird,” Case admitted in a Guardian interview. Case displays the “weirdness”, detailing an irate mother in the Hawaii capital screaming at her child “get the f*** away from me, why don’t you ever shut up?” Case’s voice is noticeably disarmed throughout until the stunning turn, when a phalanx of disembodied voices joins her. The sudden accompaniment suggests this isn’t the first time that phrase is uttered at a child and it won’t be the last. Turning to the adolescent to say sorry, she also affirms “it happens every day.” She’s not offering up sonnets, rather a look into her own autobiography.
Closer “Ragtime” allows Case to achieve a modicum of confidence, one tempered by the affirmation “I am one and the same, I am useful and strange.” Lindsay Zoladz’s Pitchfork review rightly compared the “brassy swell” to the eternal “Crimson & Clover”. However, any musical commonality takes a backseat to lyrical overlap. The 60s classic was haunted by doubt “no I don’t hardly know her” and the same can be said of Case. Tommy James & The Shondells find confidence when “she comes walking over.” Confidence can’t come overnight.
“There is absence, there is lack” folk transplant Bonnie “Prince” Billy once warbled. The Worse Things Get… is focused on lack: of confidence, of love, of parental guidance though it’s never absent. Neko Case is there in the midst of it all. She may chase her muse to the four corners, but she’s not going anywhere.