“We’re sharing a van, a band and a dog on this tour,” Kelly Hogan told a sold-out audience on hand at the Horseshoe to see her share the stage with Neko Case. “And pretty soon we’re all going to be pregnant.”
We’ll have to wait another nine months to test Hogan’s prophecy, but based on the evidence of this rainy night in Toronto, the pairing of Hogan and Case provided (pardon me) fertile creative opportunities. The two women share more than a vehicle, sidemen and a pet; they also happen to be uncommonly gifted singers.
Although country sounds threaded through their respective sets, the two make an interesting study in contrasts. While Case tends toward brassy, emphatic delivery, Hogan is a student of phrasing and nuance, something that comes across with even more conviction in person than on her recent album, Beneath The Country Underdog.
Hogan has a disarming stage manner, but she appeared skittish. “Let’s just keep going. I get nervous when we stop,” she told her support, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, off-mike; yet when she soared into a brawny rendition of Johnny Paycheck’s “(It’s A Mighty Thin Line) Between Love And Hate”, any doubts were banished.
It’s clear Hogan finds great satisfaction in discovering songs that beg for reinterpretation. Willie Nelson’s “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” showcased her capacity for laying back on a line before punching just the right word or syllable. Percy Sledge’s “Sudden Stop” was a soul-singing clinic, and the double-entendres of the Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn nugget “Wild Mountain Berries” were delivered with appropriately lewd brio.
Case joined in on an ambitious version of The Band’s “Whispering Pines”, and if they failed to equal the original, that says more about the incomparable talent of the late Richard Manuel than it does about any liability in Hogan’s estimable pipes.
If Hogan approaches a song carefully, Case favors an unbridled attack, letting her robust voice and instinctive phrasing carry the day. On her debut The Virginian, that energy and enthusiasm was refreshing, but occasionally she ran roughshod over the nuances one associates with truly great singers. Her sophomore release, Furnace Room Lullaby, demonstrates wondrous growth and finds her firmly in command of her art, exploiting bleaker, more muted tones to devastating effect.
The searching ballad “Set Out Running” and the carnally charged rockabilly number “Whip The Blankets” (“This one’s about getting it on,” she told the Horseshoe crowd) were early highlights, with the Cosmonauts (redubbed the Boyfriends for Case’s set) providing sympathetic, energetic support. At one point, Case announced she would take a run at Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out Of Fools”: “Hopefully I’ll hit all the notes, and if not, you’ll all have a funny story to tell your friends tomorrow.” The only story patrons shared with friends the next day was how Case aced the tune.
While Hogan excels at the art of the well-appointed cover, Case has grown into a solid songwriter. “Guided By Wire” is the most sterling example; a moving paean to the healing power of music, it goes one step further to provide the same kind of comfort the song celebrates: “Even in my darkest recollection, someone was singing my life back to me.” Occasional duet partner Carolyn Mark was called out to join in on “Make Your Bed”, a peerless murder ballad Case composed with Toronto band the Sadies, and Hogan pitched in on a nimble rendition of the Everly Brothers classic “Bowling Green”.
Opening act Bob Egan, who has done time with Freakwater, Wilco and Billy Bragg, has lately become a fixture on the Toronto music scene, thanks to his tenure with local heroes Blue Rodeo. Joined by BR bassist Bazil Donovan, Egan sprinted through a well-received set of songs from his eponymous solo album. Reducing the live arrangements of songs such as “Comin’ Down Hard” and the Roy Orbison-like “I Could Be Wrong” to the rudiments of bass, drums and acoustic guitar actually enhanced them. The sharper, simpler approach is one Egan should actively chase on future studio forays.