Neko Case / Kelly Hogan / Carolyn Mark / Jon Rauhouse – Solar Culture (Tucson, AZ)
Kelly Hogan took the Solar Culture stage looking like a more voluptuous version of Prince in her tastefully fitted maroon western-cut pants suit. She could’ve taken the show as well. Hogan’s almost peerlessly lyrical and soulful vocal delivery was set like a jewel in the company of the brassier beauty of Neko Case’s contralto and the quirky-lovely lower range of Carolyn Mark. The three were backed by Jon Rauhouse, whose taste and versatility were more than sufficient accompaniment. With voices like these, less is more in instrumentation. With Hogan’s, all you need is the room.
The room in this case is an old, rail-side warehouse turned art gallery with acoustics that would be the envy of many rock clubs. That’s if you don’t count the two nightly trains. The gallery invites anyone to hang their work; shows change in a cooperative effort fed by a potluck two or three times a year. For the current exhibit, Jon Langford had sent four small paintings. They were shrewdly hung behind the bands’ merch table where Rauhouse’s wife Jennifer was doing brisk business.
The set began with an inspired cover of Catherine Irwin’s “Hex”. Case and Mark played guitar as Hogan’s carefully appointed high harmonies induced the first goosebumps in a night full of them. Irwin’s own powerful recording of the song emphasizes the raggedness of her vocals. This duo read it with the same passion, but with their exquisite harmonies and Rauhouse’s lilting steel guitar, the song took on new mystery and force. Mark followed with her comic “Don’t Come Over, Baby”, which asserts, plausibly, “Love is so much better when it’s unrequited.”
Song breaks were devoted to often hilarious, whip-smart chatter of the sort that made you wish you could eavesdrop in the van. Case thanked the crowd for choosing their show over Metallica’s elsewhere in town. Mark, who has recorded and toured with Case as the Corn Sisters, clowned and mugged through the entire set, at one point announcing, “We’re recording the show tonight. You must make it sound like we were well received or I won’t get the grant.” She needn’t have worried.
Hogan dedicated her self-penned “Sugarbowl” to “everyone in the room who smells like fried food.” The song limns fond memories shared with characters and co-workers at a diner. In the instrumental break, Hogan yelled, “Free for all!”, and accompanied Rauhouse’s electric guitar with her own hand trumpet.
One highlight was the Louvin Brothers “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”; the women sang the last verse a cappella and made Solar Culture feel like a church. Another was “Do Memories Haunt You”, a Lonnie Coleman song often attributed to Hazel Dickens. The women also invited Calexico’s Joey Burns up to “wing it” on accordion for a few songs.
Case dedicated the standard “You Belong To Me” to her grandmother, who was celebrating her birthday. The women sang it with Andrews Sisters style. They then discussed extensively whether and under what conditions smoking might be sexy, by way of introducing Hogan’s rendering of Les Paul & Mary Ford’s classic “Smoke Rings”, which she recorded with Rauhouse on his recent Steel Guitar Rodeo disc. Rauhouse traded his steel for rhythm guitar, which he somehow made both sensitive and important in a manner that echoed back to the 1940s and ’50s.
Cathy Rivers opened the evening with a selection of songs from her 2003 disc Bleach and a couple from her upcoming EP. She was mired a bit with sidemen suffering the Tucson-pandemic “Howe Gelb syndrome” — yes, he makes improvisation look easy, but the rest of us need rehearsals. Guitarist Nick Luca played inspired leads, though, and Rivers won the crowd all by herself with her archetypal new “Tennessee Gentlemen”, a country song with a heart of pure punk metal.