It was a little like introducing two friends, and finding them wary of each other. In this case, the friends were Neko Case and the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. (The Concert Hall feels like my second home, although I haven't been invited to sleep over yet.) Neko Case isn't the first and won't be the last artist to be thrilled about playing the Opera House and - at the same time - to struggle with its demanding acoustics.
From the moment she hit the stage, it was obvious Neko couldn't hear enough vocals through the stage monitor. Ironically, she sounded fine (sounded great!) from where I sat in the heart of the stalls, but the band sounded muddy. Thankfully, the sound improved as the show progressed, but was never quite as you'd wish. It's not that the Concert Hall is an impossible room for amplified music - far from it - but it's certainly tricky.
It was multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse (pictured) who was most short-changed. Case's songs mostly come in at pop song length, and there is no space for extended solos, but Rauhouse is a skilled and tasteful accompanist, on guitar, pedal steel, banjo - and, on this night at least, a green trombone. (Check out his work on the superb, stripped down Live from Austin TX.)
The applause that followed the opening song, 'Bracing for Sunday' suggested that either the sound was better in other parts of the room, or that this crowd was going to get behind Neko Case no matter what.
Case scored a deserved Grammy nomination for The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, a step-up from Middle Cyclone (2009), and the equal of the breakthrough Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2009). The Worse Things get made up one third of the set, most of which came from those three albums.
I came to Neko Case through her first two 'alt country' albums, Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, and I confess the more country she sounds, the more I love her. (That said, she is now a considerably more mature singer, a better singer, than she was on those first albums.) I'm less attracted to her parallel career with The New Pornographers, although the lines are obviously blurred. Her current style, which saw her nominated for 'Best Alternative Music Album', takes some elements of country, but might best be described as some sort of country-tinged 'adult rock', if a label is needed.
What distinguishes all her best work is a great voice, and a singular approach to song-writing. The Worse Things Get is reputed to be the most autobiographical album of Case's career, born of a period of severe depression. (NPR's Morning Edition followed the making of the album. There's a good piece linked from here). Autobiographical, perhaps, but far from prosaic. Case has an artist's gift and a poet's ear. There are layers of meaning, but you don't have to peel back the layers to appreciate the wordplay and get the gist. (Is the 'maneater' in 'People Got a Lotta Nerve' really a fish? Deep metaphor or whimsy? Does it matter?)
Neko Case's recent work includes some of the catchiest songs of her career. 'City Swans', from The Worse Things Get, has a killer hook, and 'People Got a Lotta Nerve' (Middle Cyclone) and 'Hold On, Hold On' (Fox Confessor) have a similar toe-tapping appeal. But it's the slower songs that really get me, and the highlight for me was 'Set Out Running', the only song on the list that went back as far as Furnace Room Lullaby.
(Another song in waltz time, 'Favorite' from The Tigers have Spoken, was another -um - favorite .)
Ultimately, Neko Case and band overcame the challenges and sent us home happy. This was in no small measure thanks to the remarkable Kelly Hogan, Case's long-time friend and singing partner (‘backup singer’ doesn't do her justice). Hogan is warm and funny, and kind of MC'd the show. The patter between the two sounds a little like old friends on a road trip ... which it is, in a way. Oh, and Kelly Hogan sings like an angel. Their two voices mesh perfectly, almost like siblings.
It wasn't a perfect show, but I came out a bigger fan than when I went in. I've been listening to nothing but Neko Case all week.
Photographs © Prudence Upton, 2014 all rights reserved.