By PAUL BLANK
It’s quite common for a singer whose hands are idle without an instrument to play to hold onto her mic stand during a performance — leaning on and moving around it to create a visual focal point that isn’t necessarily her own. But not Neko Case. Standing with feet shoulder length apart, she kept her hands by her sides for her entire performance at State Theater on Tuesday night, creating an air of control over the proceedings, even when things got downright silly. When her hands were occupied with one of the multitude of instruments that were handed to her during the show, you didn’t get the impression she was using them as a crutch. Rather, you felt like the instruments would be honored to be in such confident hands.
And why wouldn’t they be? For over a decade now, Neko Case has been one of the best, most distinctive voices in music, making infectious power pop with Canadian outfit The New Pornographers as well as beautiful alt-country as a solo artist. Her newest album, The Worse Things Get … may be her best, putting her powerful voice on full display as well as her knack for biting and conversational lyrics. Even though she complained about and apologized at the beginning of the show for the sore throat and stuffy nose she had woken up with that morning, Case’s voice rang gloriously throughout the venue in a performance that showed an artist hitting her stride and an audience eager to appreciate it.
Case and her band performed in bursts, drawing songs from her most recent albums — 2007’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood through The Worse Things Get … — that were often under three minutes long. The show felt like a collection of vignettes, and Case, dressed in unassuming sweats, performed the songs with little flair, allowing her voice and tunes to shine through. Her backing band was equally professional, nimbly working through the many genres Case has delved into during her career, from Loretta Lynn-style country pop to earthy indie rock.
While the songs Case performed from her back catalogue were airy and gorgeous, the best songs were clearly those from the new album (its full title: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You). The punchy drums in the chorus of “City Swan”, the confrontational gender politics of “Man” and the airing of dirty laundry on “Local Girl” (sample lyric: “All of you lie about something! / You’re on a first-name basis!”) were tent poles of aggression that contrasted well with the stretches of beauty. The fuzzy bass laid under “Red Tide” from 2009’s Middle Cyclone was particularly uncouth, lending the song a menace that isn’t even apparent on the original record.
A special shout-out definitely needs to go to Case’s back-up singer, Kelly Hogan, whose higher register made every song’s vocal harmonies especially pristine. The banter between her and Case was a highlight of the show, touching on topics between songs from chipmunks to menopause to the obscure guitar technique known as the clitoral hammer-on (“Only girls can play it,” Neko claims). Their rapport kept things light and added an extra element of humor when they were immediately followed by songs of great longing and tragedy (One discussion riffing off State Theater’s architecture segued into “Night Still Comes,” which starts with the lyric, “My brain makes drugs to keep me slow.”) As a result, the show was warm and informal; the audience laughed almost as much as they cheered.
And when the triumphant horns in the chorus of “Ragtime” sounded to close out the show, you could tell they saw an opportunity to show their appreciation and transcend the venue’s assigned seating. Folks started to boogie in the aisles, both young and old (major props to the guy in his 70s; I can only hope to be that mobile at that age). It was an unexpected sentiment considering Case is hardly a household name, but it showed that the singer’s music resonates with a diverse crowd that will follow her as she continues to gain momentum. Case, Hogan and the rest of the band bowed and left the stage to a loving standing ovation. A stage hand walked off with her mic shortly thereafter.