Flamed-haired and iron-lunged, Neko Case is like a Norse goddess. Her songs are primal, animal, aching, heartrending — but above all, defiant.
You know the Virginian singer/songwriter (and occasional New Pornographer) is a force from her album covers. On the front of 2009’s Middle Cyclone, she’s riding the hood of a 1967 Mercury Cougar, wielding a sword. The album was as brute a force as the natural disaster it was named for. Indeed, Case doesn’t really deal in oblique metaphors; she really was singing about earth-carving, iron-bending twisters. The songs had titles like This Tornado Loves You, Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth, I’m An Animal. Titles that sounded like both threats and promises.
Depending on which version you have, she’s also brandishing a sword on the cover of her latest record, 2013’s ostentatiously titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You — perhaps Case’s most defiant record yet. There’s something so raw about this collection of songs, like a bloody, still-beating heart ripped from someone’s chest.
On Saturday night, Case filled the filagreed Burton Cummings Theatre with her great big voice. "Where’s Burton Cummings, is he here?" she asked when she took the stage, all wild hair (and clad in a badass pair of X-ray tights), before opening the show with the arresting Where Did I Leave That Fire? that transitioned seamlessly into a sped-up This Tornado Loves You. (The night would include many Burton Cummings jokes, including one about the provenance of the theatre’s carpet fibres which probably isn’t fit for print...)
"I’m a Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come," she sings on Bracing for Sunday, one of The Harder I Fight’s best songs, which also includes one of the album’s lines: "She died having a child by her brother/He died, because I murdered him." (Pro-tip: follow Case on Twitter. She’s funny.)
That plainspokeness was in contrast to her folk-noir numbers with their deftly crafted narratives, such as the haunting Polar Nettles, as well as Lion’s Jaw and the harrowing Margaret vs. Pauline both from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. When she sang that opening line "Everthing’s so easy for Pauline..." a hush fell over the theatre. Then she took it back to 2002 with Deep Red Bells, which beautifully showcased the rich lower end of her voice.
Case’s vocal performances are athletic, muscular. Even when she sounds honey-voiced and girlish, there’s power behind it.
The show’s crown jewel was a vocal performance of the devastating Nearly Midnight, Honolulu, with the help of her dulcet-voiced backup singer Kelly Hogan. (Actually, backbone singer might be more like it; Hogan did her share of the heavy-lifting, her indelible harmonizing with Case elevating every track.) A song about a little kid getting brutally reamed out by his or her mom at a bus stop — "She said ‘Get the F--- away from me/Why don’t you ever shut up?’’— Nearly Midnight, Honolulu is among the most straightforward in Case’s catalogue, but packs the biggest emotional wallop. Too bad she had to stop to call someone out for being on their phone, tipped off by the illumination in the first balcony.
From That Teenage Feeling to Hold On, Hold On, Case brought her best. The main set closed with the driving single Man. She returned to the stage, her wild mane now under wraps in a bun, with guitarist Eric Bachmann for an achingly beautiful duet of his band Crooked Fingers’ Sleep All Summer, which put the St. Vincent and The National version to shame.
So much emotion of a Neko Case show relies on the ability to hear her lyrics — she’s as masterful a songwriter as she is a singer — so seeing her in a theatre setting is a singular treat. Happily, you could hear — and hang onto — every word. The show ended with the triumphant Ragtime, on which Case sings, "I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready/I’ll reveal myself invincible soon."
San Francisco indie rockers The Dodos kicked things off with a 45-minute set. Frontman Meric Long has one of those compelling, listen-to-him-read-the-dictionary voices, but it often felt like a tiny rowboat on a tidal wave of guitars and pummeling drums.