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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Live the Night Before Last: Neko Case

Chris Klimek

neko-case-by-jason-creps Neko Case’s anachronistic beauty might seem ordinary only measured against her elemental, once-in-a-generation set of pipes. At her enjoyable if slightly schizophrenic gig at the 9:30 club last night, That Voice had the capacity crowd on its best behavior. The only people doing much goofing around for the majority of the spectral 85-minute set were 1) Neko Case, campfire noir knockout, and 2) Kelly Hogan, backing vocalist/emcee/hype woman/song introducer. The duo sounds sublime when their banter eventually turns to singing, but there’s still something a little spell-breaking about the fact that Case essentially has her own heckler on the payroll.

“The next song is a spooky song,” she announced before the as-advertised “Prison Girls.”

“Spookier,” Hogan corrected her. Though she’s fast on her feet and a fine singer, Hogan’s key qualification seems to be that she’s not intimidated by Neko Case, the thinking man’s (and woman’s) bombshell. But Seriously, Folks: You’ve never heard a sold-out 9:30 crowd struck so silent as when Case sparked off the relative oldie “I Wish I Was the Moon.” The tune hails from Blacklisted — the 2002 album on which Case’s songbook set its present course far afield from country (alt- or otherwise), venturing ever deeper into the Tom Waits-y, David Lynch-ian realm of the surreal and animalistic. From that point on, introspection gets channeled through imagery of car crashes, predators both human and animal, and (most recently) very bad weather. The entire show was culled from this era of Case’s work; more than half of it from her month-old Middle Cyclone album, which gives her haunted imaginings their fullest, most distinct expression yet.

Almost to a one, the songs were brief, elliptical, and beautifully performed by Case and her five-piece band while hypnotic video projections (sped-up clips of angry prairie skies; seas of traffic-jammed taillights) played on a screen behind them.

And in between? Jokes from Hogan about having let fly with some scatological humor during a backstage visit with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Duncan took the stage prior to Case's set to urge the youngish crowd to consider going into teaching.) “Nerds in the house, represent!” Hogan commanded more than once. The banter was merely silly at least as often as it was funny, but it leavened the mood in between Case’s dreamy, sometimes menacing songs, rendered dreamier by Jon Rauhouse’s array of guitars. These regular tonal shifts made it difficult for the show to find its vibe, like watching a horror film with a laugh track.

Of course, the 38-year-old Case’s voice is a wonder to behold in any context, even a confused one. It’s so singular an instrument that the structural and thematic oddities of her material that would stick out like a severed thumb in the, er, hands of a lesser singer fade into the background. That is, until you’re ready to notice them, when they step from the sonic shadows to reveal themselves anew.

“You can talk while we’re tuning,” the star said after “The Tigers Have Spoken,” and the whole room seemed to exhale as one. As if to emphasize the point, Case closed the show with another simmering oldie, “Knock Loud.” Deafening silence has seldom sounded this good.

Pretty easy on the eyes, too.

A quite different version of this review appeared on Post Rock.

Neko Case at the 9:30 Club, Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Band

Kelly Hogan - vocals, banter

Barry Mirochnick - drums

Jon Rauhouse - guitar, steel guitar, banjo

Tom V. Ray - bass

Paul Rigby -- guitar

Neko Case - lead vocals, guitar

The Setlist

01 Maybe Sparrow 02 People Got a Lotta Nerve 03 Fever 04 Hold On, Hold On 05 The Pharaohs 06 Middle Cyclone 07 Deep Red Bells 08 I Wish I Was the Moon 09 I’m an Animal 10 Prison Girls 11 The Tigers Have Spoken 12 Margaret vs. Pauline 13 Red Tide 14 Don’t Forget Me (Harry Nilsson) 15 That Teenage Feeling 16 This Tornado Loves You

17 Vengeance Is Sleeping 18 Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth (Sparks) 19 Knock Loud