My night with Neko
Neko Case has come to be one of my favorite live performers of late, for a few different reasons. First, I love the music she writes. Second, I love the fact that she's incredibly adept at executing her music (that voice will affect you a hundred different ways- from chilling to laughing to enticing). Third, and possibly the most integral part of her memorable live performances, she has a modestly awkward stage presence that is entirely endearing; not to mention her great sense of humor, often playing with the audience and her stage partners. All of these make for almost any Neko Case show to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience, on several levels. And judging from the crowds she's been attracting lately, I'm not alone in thinking this.
The club was packed with about 300 or so people (which was seemingly not far from capacity), so arriving a half hour before show time didn't allow for much in the way of seating. Luckily, we ended up finding a table upstairs, though, and could occasionally see someone onstage through the couple of people between us and the balcony railing. Not bad, but not great. But Off Broadway is a fantastic sounding club: an old brick building with a tall warehouse-type ceiling, so there's a very open, airy atmosphere, and the sound resonates on the wooden floors wonderfully. Very conducive to acoustic music, so that made for a very enjoyable show.
This show was the first night of a short tour the three girls (Neko, Catherine Irwin, and Carolyn Mark) were taking through the midwest and Texas. Each of the acts has a somewhat similar flavor musically. Carolyn, who hails from Victoria, British Columbia, played with Neko in The Corn Sisters, and her recent solo effort Terrible Hostess (done with the help of her band the Room-Mates) has received many good reviews. Catherine Irwin, of the folk/country band Freakwater, recently released a solo album called Cut Yourself a Switch, a collection of lonely sounding folk songs with not much more than an acoustic guitar and bass. So it would seem these three were meant to do a tour together, no?
From what I've mentioned so far, you might have guessed that the night was filled with very stripped-down performances, each of the three acts consisting of no more than 2-3 acoustic/electric players. Opener Carolyn Mark (who also played/sang on Neko's debut album The Virginian) was accompanied by guitarist/vocalist Tolan McNeil (at least I believe it was him), bringing a campy yet stylish mix of country and loungey folk music. Carolyn has a slightly deep and strong, yet somewhat throaty or breathy voice; difficult for me to describe to a T. While the duo's vocals were vibrant and engaging, I had trouble distinguishing what was going on with their guitars. Both played acoustic-electric guitars (I believe of the same make), and they sometimes stepped over each other in the mix, making it difficult to decipher what exactly was being played. Could have been a bad mix, could have been that the instruments were too similar, could have just been me; but something somewhere didn't quite hit me right. Great songs, though: although I'm not familiar with her material enough to recognize songs, she does tend to have a great wit with her songtitles (like 'I Took My Band to Newfoundland in a Honda Civic'). Great presence in the vocals, and I highly suggest checking out her records. And she mentioned something about a recipe book they put together to pay off money they owe their mothers that certainly piqued my interest.
Next up was Catherine Irwin with another 2-person 'female-fronted-male-backed' makeup. This time, our 'she' played an old Gibson acoustic and 'he' played a nice Rickenbacker bass. What I noticed about these two in comparison/contrast to the previous two is that their instrumentation was much better; the guitar sounded very mellow and not overbearing, and the bass blended with it very well to create a very warm, soothing instrument makeup. Catherine's voice had a deep, sleepy, creaky, just-woke-out-of-bed quality to it most of the time, which worked better in some songs than in others. She seemed a bit nervous at times (I've also read in interviews she admits to a bit of stagefright, so I feel for her there), and her voice sometimes had a bit of wavering in it when she attempted stronger passages. Overall, their playlist consisted of slower torch-ish folk songs, and they created a smarmy, lounge-ish atmosphere, completed by the dangling cigarette that stayed in the bassist's mouth through most of the set. It might have been a lot more enjoyable (and might've helped her nervousness) to hear Catherine without the constant chatting of the people around us- such as the girls 'liming' their Coronas at the next table, who got progressively louder as Catherine's set went on. I'd be interested to hear a combined effort of these openers together- between the strength in the guitar/bass of Catherine Irwin's combo and the vocals of Carolyn Mark's combo, it'd probably be some sweet stuff. And it almost seems, given some time on the road together, that might naturally happen.
I'd seen this current lineup of Neko on acoustic and electric guitar with Jon Rauhouse on steel guitar, banjo, acoustic, etc. and Tom V. Ray on standup bass and tambourine (which he plays with his foot!) at The Metro in Chicago last October, and pretty much knew what to expect. But that still didn't dissuade my excitement one bit. Hearing her songs in this stripped-down instrumentation merely seems to raise the effectiveness of her voice; there are fewer things to distract you from the core of the song. Granted, there are some harmonies and pieces missing in comparison to the arrangements on the records, but in a live setting, you don't get much more intimate and engaging than this. Plus, it's a real treat to be able to truly hear Jon play without being drowned out by drums or something or other (be sure to check out his great new largely instrumental release on Bloodshot Records called Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show- featuring many other wonderful musicians).
For those familiar with Neko's records, the majority of the set was from the later efforts- Furnace Room Lullaby, Canadian Amp, and Blacklisted (incidentally, anyone who hasn't picked up Canadian Amp, I would highly recommend it- it's a great record, containing mostly covers recorded in Neko's living room- they played 4 songs from it in this set). They started with Favorite, one of her best songs in my opinion (note my restraint from using the obvious pun). It was played a bit slower than the original recording, but that really only made the enjoyment last longer. On songs like Deep Red Bells and Pretty Girls, her voice was so spot-on that all that was missing in comparison to the records was the cathedral-sized reverb echo. The song Blacklisted had a nice, drawn out ritard (slowing down) at the end, making the "fast train" of the lyrics figuratively come to a halt. On the song Knock Loud, from Canadian Amp, Tom hit the back of his upright bass to produce a low, booming percussive beat that added a great feel to the song. At one point, when Neko was taking a break for a moment, Tom and Jon launched into a nice little intermission music; the last time I saw them play it in Chicago, it was a bit more extended and focused, and even got a good bit of applause. This time, relatively few seemed to notice since Neko wasn't at the helm- people should pay more attention.
Some surprises included a new song (described as "the newest of the new"), which sounded right on par with Neko's usual writing. Actually, one melody line of the song reminded me a lot of the "gaping wide" line from the song I Missed the Point on Blacklisted- but it's a great line, so it doesn't bother me. A cover of Bob Dylan's Buckets of Rain followed shortly, which featured an excellent steel guitar solo by Jon. He has such a blend of precision and expression that is pure pleasure to hear. They threw in a cover of the gospel tune Wayfaring Stranger, which this time featured Jon doing a banjo solo. He has a great knack for fitting the feel of every song, be it slow, lilting, crying steel guitar, or, as in their cover of the gospel song Wayfaring Stranger, gutsy, gravelly banjo licks dragged from the river bottom.
As I mentioned, Neko's stage presence is always one of the best parts of her shows. She apologized to the audience no less than three times for having missed their last scheduled appearance in St. Louis due to van troubles. Perhaps her Chicago friends warned her of crazy gun-toting St. Louis natives (Chicago-St. Louis rivalries a la Cubs-Cardinals, Blackhawks-Blues, and Bears-Rams tend to be vicious). But it's obvious she was embraced by the crowd, who gobbled up her performance with quiet, focused attention (which is much more than I can say for the way Catherine and Carolyn were received- kind of crappy, actually, at least in our area of the club). Neko's banter was entertaining as always, between her yelling "Free Quebec!" and her quick soap opera narrative of Jon's momentary unplugging and plugging guitars ("Jon's quit the band!" and "Now he's back in the band!"). The girls also seemed to be having a lot of fun on the tour together (even though it had only started with this show): Neko equated it to some new age Brady Bunch-esque episodes where the girls pour punch on each others' maxipads. I'm still not sure who would be Marsha in that scenario.
2) Outro with Bees
3) new song
4) Twist the Knife
5) Stinging Velvet
6) Pretty Girls
7) Buckets of Rain
8) Ghost Wiring
9) Deep Red Bells
10) Set Out Running
11) Knock Loud
13) Wayfaring Stranger
14) Furnace Room Lullaby
14.5) intermission music by Tom & Jon
15) Lady Pilot
16) Look for Me (I'll Be Around)
17) Alone and Forsaken
18) In California
19) South Tacoma Way
20) I Wish I was the Moon
- Eric Burnley | 2003-02-13
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