News that Neko Case’s latest album, Middle Cyclone, reached #3 on the Billboard charts upon its release last month signaled the arrival of a new phase in the singer’s gradually building career. No longer is Case a nightclub act; she’s reached the theater/concert-hall circuit now – thus her appearance at the home of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra after many previous appearances on the other side of the North Carolina Triangle at the famed Cat’s Cradle club on the edge of Chapel Hill.
Just how that “movin’ on up” affects concertgoers probably depends a fair bit on exactly when they got on board with Case’s enchanting blend of traditional instrumentation with indie-rock adventurousness. If you’re new to her music – and the new album’s surprisingly strong sales out of the gate suggest many catching her current tour are indeed recent converts – the clear sonic setting of a room like Meymandi Hall probably seems like an ideal venue to accommodate the swoops and soars of Case’s dramatic and emotional voice. If, on the other hand, you caught some of those Cat’s Cradle gigs (or maybe even further back at such small rooms as Chapel Hill’s Go Studios or Seattle’s Hattie’s Hat), there will inevitably be a certain intimacy that is lost in the translation to more formal settings.
Such is true for every artist fortunate enough to get the chance to play for larger audiences, of course; the challenge is whether to “go big” in your performance/presentation, or to stick with the personality that got you there in the first place. Judging from this show, Case seems steadfastly set on the latter. Though she’s made some modest upgrades in stage-decoration (with folk-art images and a screen for showing mostly impressionistic projections), and has expanded her band to a five-piece (after many tours backed by just a duo or trio), when it comes to audience interaction she’s still as warm and casual in front of a couple thousand folks as she was in front of a couple hundred, or even a couple dozen.
Neko Case and band at Bush Hall in London, 2-23-09
It helps that she now has harmony singer Kelly Hogan alongside her at stage left. Much as Case’s former Corn Sisters bandmate Carolyn Mark did in the late ’90s, Hogan provides Case with not only considerable vocal support (on her own and with her early ’90s band the Jody Grind, Hogan has long been one of the best female singers in the underground), but also a sister-in-arms with which to engage in off-kilter banter between songs. On this night, they joked about everything from audience shout-outs to “fake oldies” songs (e.g. Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll”) to Soft Boy Kimberley Rew’s pop smash “Walkin’ On Sunshine”. Hogan’s presence clearly puts Case more at ease, making the transition from smaller to larger venues seem almost imperceptible from a stage-presence standpoint.
Newer fans and longtime followers might also have had different feelings about the set list, which concentrated heavily on recent material; three-fourths of the 21-song show (counting the five encore tunes) came from the new Middle Cyclone disc or from 2006′s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Though those records certainly represent Case’s commercial zenith – and it’s presumed that any artist will focus on fresher material in a live show – she has built up enough of a quality catalogue at this point that it seems worth tapping a little more thoroughly. While the new album’s single “People Got A Lotta Nerve” and the moving title track – with its memorable line, “to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love” – were among the evening’s high points, so too were older tunes such as “The Tigers Have Spoken” and “Deep Red Bells”.
Case has also long been established as a first-rate interpreter (ever since she blew the doors off Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks A Lot” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green” on her very first album in 1997), and so it was no surprise to hear her deliver a few cover tunes, including Sook-Yin Lee’s “Knock Loud” (as the final number) and two cuts from Middle Cyclone, the mid-’70s Sparks song “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”, and Harry Nilsson’s dramatic “Don’t Forget Me”. The Nilsson number was the most moving, reminiscent of a previous version recorded many years ago by Marianne Faithfull. (A fitting parallel, given that Faithfull recently recorded Case’s Fox Confessor standout “Hold On Hold On”.)
Throughout, Case received tasteful and dynamic backing from her bandmates – which, in addition to Hogan, included multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, bassist Tom V. Ray, guitarist Paul Rigby, and drummer Barry Mirochnick. They consistently enhanced the broad-ranging moods of Case’s music, even as they were always careful to leave her voice at the center, as it should be.
Opening the show was a trio incarnation of Crooked Fingers, the adventurous indie-pop outfit led by former N.C. Triangle resident Eric Bachmann, who confessed that this was the first time he’d been inside the Raleigh Symphony’s home hall despite his former residency in the area. Their acoustic-centered performance served as a fine scene-setter for the headliner, even if the opener-length brevity and the emphasis on newer material meant Bachmann wasn’t able to tap in to some of the best of his work (including anything from 2005′s terrific Dignity And Shame album).