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Neko Case and Her Boyfriends (Tuesday, June 7th, 2005, First Avenue, Minneapolis)
Neko Case at the Bowery Ballroom NY - Photo by Dan Schultz of mordac.org, used by permission

Cyn Collins

The First Avenue stage set in red velvet curtains, Neko Case noted that she was happy to get to play the club on Prince’s Birthday. She gave him a little shit for dating Carmen Electra, but excused him because maybe he was bored; then dedicated her first song to him, with the refrain, “How Far Will You Go?”

Case, in faded jeans with a wild red mane and a black T reading, “This Too Shall Pass” put on a strong, driving show. She poured her heart into her songs without sentiment or fragility. I liked the laid back, yet high energy of the show, a down to earth, no pretense performance by the band members: banjo/pedal steel, bass, upright bass, drums and guitar.

With her gritty singing, sly humor, and flirtatious, direct spirit, she reminded me of Loretta Lynn at a show three summers ago at the Rosebud Reservation near where I grew up. Case definitely ranks with her heroes Wanda Jackson, Loretta Lynn and other old-time country singers of the ‘60’s and even longer ago. Her crystalline, woeful vocals reminded me easily not only of Wanda Jackson (whom she’s covered on Wanda tributes), but also Nancy Sinatra and Patsy Cline.

The song “Your Saving Grace” is exemplary of Case’s ability to evoke powerful, lasting imagery. She consistently sounds tough, sexy, and vulnerable in her songs, often simultaneously.

She sang a song about “flooded fields, beauty taken for granted sure as the day I was born . . . it’s not for you to know or even wonder when the death of civilization seizes. . .” a heartrending song with a tragic ending that took me back to the farmlands where I grew up, now being destroyed by pollution and development. Many of Case’s songs are about environmental issues, but informative and emotive without being pedantic.

Next was a Buffy St. Marie song, “Dressmaker,” played on the small acoustic guitar, featuring again great pedal steel. Then she did a dark ballad with excellent low claw hammer banjo solo that made the crowd go wild.

From The Tigers Have Spoken, Case sang “Deep Red Bells” which featured great visual elements, then another favorite that I first heard on the 89.3 The Current, “Buckets of Rain,” including the lyrics, “Everything about you is bringing me misery.”

So much of the turmoil and conflict inherent with being in love is captured so well in Case’s lyrics. She sang a song based on a true story her grandma told her --. unfortunately I couldn’t hear the lyrics for this -- but then she went into “a song about birds,” (or rather about their extinction) that was sung in such a poignant way I dwelled once more upon the continual decline of the non-human species due to human practices and development. This was a refreshing, running theme throughout her show, interspersed with the personal love tales.

Then came the ubiquitous train song, “Train From Kansas City,” originally done by the Shangri-Las, with the fast train rhythms low.

Case dedicated a song to Bill Sullivan of the 400 Bar where she used to play, “Tenderly, tenderly, tenderly. . . “ One audience member said, and I had to agree, it was possibly the sweetest love song ever written. Then she moved into darker territory with “Hex,” where she puts a spell on a lover who made her fall in love with him and winds up alone and lonely.

Before the encore, she sang “The Tigers Have Spoken,” “they shot the tiger on his chain. . . “ that had been picked up as a cub, and kept on a chain never seeing other tigers. The first time I heard this while driving, I had to pull over and cry. Her evocative imagery and plaintive, yet direct vocals do that to you. For the encore she sang [not sure of song title] “I’m so tired, I wish I was the moon,” completely capturing the old country singing tradition with no mercy, singing of loneliness and pain, yet defiantly strong-willed in the face of it.

It was very hot, “hot, hot, hot,” Case chanted between most songs. When she returned from the very brief break for the encore, tugging up her jeans, she quoted bandmate Tom, saying, “My pants feel like five layers of hot lettuce.” She sang “a gospel song so old, so old, (affecting an old woman’s voice) so very, very old, it was written by ghosts. “ “Wayfaring Stranger,” a huge favorite old-time song of mine was done as well as I’ve ever heard it, with all the hardship and seeking solace in death inherent.

Going into another gospel song, she echoed the sentiment of many these days who cover the old-time gospel songs for what they lend in stories and great loud strong vocal and harmony aspects. “I’m not religious,” she said, “But I’m into gospel songs with monsters. The Bible doesn’t believe in evolution, but there’s a monster with a horn and a tail and 666 on its forehead, and I think it came from the sea. That’s a bad-ass monster!” “Holy to the Lord,” was sung in the definitive Primitive Baptist style such as Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Gerard have brought to the fore of our consciousness.

Case apologized to the audience for taking time to tune the small fussy Martin, which “has been angry since I brought home another guitar,” while joking about how she could have a tech tune her guitars, but that would look bad for a lady to have a man tune her guitar for her. “Fuck that. Maybe I should have a man peel my banana for me on the bus. Have a man stand up here and pull my pants up. Yeah. Tune, peel, pull up. That would be great!“

A few songs earlier I wondered if by chance a Hank tune might make it into the mix. It did. Case sang, “Alone and Forsaken,” doing Hank true justice on this lonesome, cynical song.

Cyn Collins is cyn.collins@howwastheshow.com