Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Sound of Your Voice Yanks My Neck on the Chain

It's hard not to half suspect if you see Neko Case live she won't be able to pull it off. If I have to explain "it" you just need to go listen--there's a reason her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood floated onto so many album of the year lists, and that reason begins with her voice. It's one thing to list all the different folks it can suggest, from Patsy Cline here to Dusty Springfield there, but its sum is much more than any reference. Somehow she can intimately belt, draw you near and blow you away all at once. Of course there's beauty to it, but there's ever an edge, a bend or a smear of that perfect note, another woman's voice joining in to up the volume, ante up the angst. It's easy to imagine she pulls this off through studio trickery, or at the least through endless takes added up to get that seemingly simple effort (if I remember right, that's how they had to piece together Linda Thompson's vocal for "Walking on a Wire" on the incomparable Shoot Out the Lights, as she was suffering from panic/anxiety attacks).

Well, Case can do it live, folks, and how. This Saturday at the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles she performed a flawless set, to the point of running through back-to-back-to-back songs that would have been enough of a show for me: "Maybe Sparrow," "The Tigers Have Spoken," and "I Wish I Was the Moon." That's: a moving metaphor folk tune with some surprising force about how the world is tough for little things (and I didn't cry, but my throat lumped but good at song's end); a jangly (it's an overused term, but nothing fits that catchy guitar figure better) alt-rock song about how the world is tough for big fearsome but tender things; and a country torch and twang number about how the world is tough on Neko Case, but she can sure still belt about it. Those "be the one"s that repeat near the end of "I Wish"--how could any lover forsake her? Perhaps they are just too much need for one to survive in life, if not too much for performance, and it's a real danger to mix the two.

Opening act Eric Bachmann had the nerve to perform while so many concert-goers were trying to have conversations. It's a real shame, though, for Bachmann has put out many of the best songs of the past 13 years, first as the leader of Archers of Loaf (the Voidoids of the '90s), then as the major digit of Crooked Fingers, and now his first true solo album (and that's ignoring the two Barry Black discs that are terrific instrumental forays). He performed solo, but still projected, speeding up his acoustic-guitar based songs just a teensy bit. He's sort of become an American Richard Thompson 20 years younger--made his name in a band, writes great songs, plays electric and acoustic marvelously, has a voice that's not pretty (in Bachmann's case, think Neil Diamond's pipes bristled with Brillo), but matches perfectly with the songs. Plus he closed with "New Drink for the Old Drunk," one of the grandest wallows in recorded music.

The night also featured one of those made in the marketing department moments, as between sets we got a half-hour visit from Case's new label mate at Anti-, country music legend Porter Wagoner, with an assist from Marty Stuart, who showed up not only with his mandolin, sadly over-reverbed, but also with Rod Stewart's hair from 1982. I use the country music legend billing entirely intentionally, for he might be cruising on the legend more than talent at this point, but he's still charming at 79, even if he can't remember lyrics, or seem to want to read them from the music stand in front of him. Perhaps his days "In the Rubber Room" left more of a mark than anyone would care to discuss. Still, his purple spangled suit was resplendent, at least until he called out his "band" of Dwight Yoakam on bass (playing parts I could play) and drummer Billy Bob Thornton, in a Nudie jacket that looked like it needed batteries. The only thing that topped its glare were his teeth, for he couldn't stop grinning like the cat that ate the Jolie-nary. That's what happens when LA meets the grand Ole Opry. I have to assume Billy Bob tried to pick up Neko backstage.

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Blogger Mike said...

I'm sure he tried to pick her up. Based on the pic from your older post I can see why.

"I'll Fly Away" by Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss on the Oh, Brother soundtrack makes my eyes mist over nearly every time I hear it.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Drew said...

Sounds like an awesome show. I was actually in the area this weekend and drove past the very theater Neko was playing at just a few minutes before she would have gone on stage, I'm to understand. But oh well -- one day, I'll see her live.

10:49 AM  

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