Neko Case - Skylight West - 9/4/13
Better Than: Free beer.
Neko Case and Kelly Hogan have got stage banter to a stand-up science. "Somebody brought me ice! Who knows I'm in menopause?," said Case's longtime backup singer at a private, pink-lit, sweltering performance of Case's new record, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, at Midtown warehouse space Skylight West. Decked out in sparkly high heels and matching metallic nails, Hogan dabbed at her neck with an ice cube; when Case took a break to fan herself with a hand, she asked, "You want some of my menopause ice?" The true test of her comic relief came later. "This song is for my bandmates, because I am a barren spinster," Case said, yet another brutally honest and often self-effacing interstitial monologue (she began the night by comparing the album's release the day before to "getting it out of the box" after a "disgusting gestation period"). Before she could go on, however, Hogan had something to say: the most famous lines of Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."
If Case's vocal chops are any indication, she shouldn't have anything to worry about. "You're really good at your job!" said an audience member at one point (cue Hogan: "Burrito rollers! Security guards! Waiters!"), and she is. Case may have lost her grandparents, parents, and her ability to connect with people and listen to music, all in the making of The Worse Things Get, but she didn't lose her voice. It may have been marred by feedback for the encore, and there were doubts about how well the space could carry sound, but Case's voice travels at the speed of sound. It moved with her signature piercing clarity through the 200-strong crowd, which included Robert Christgau--whose toe I almost stepped on--among pretty much everyone else in the music industry, or at least a specific subset of it. The event was part of Pandora's months-old Premieres, which streams albums weeks before they're released and hosts events around the country with minimal advertising and free booze. It also happened to be the first stop on Case's tour, which hits Radio City later this month.
Despite this being Case and her band's first show behind The Worse Things Get, and the singer's reservations that she'd fuck it up, the new songs sounded great. She commanded the room no matter what she did--holding her voice low and eerily soft so it was barely above a whisper, or her devastatingly a cappella verses twinned with Hogan's to produce one of the purest extended notes I'll probably ever hear. Even "Blah blah blah, blah blah blah" sounds like sweet nothings coming from her. As for the rest, the band happened to be really good at its job. Be it the bassist's, banjo player's, and a backstage observer's noteworthy facial hair (full white beard, Einstein 'fro, mutton chops) or more likely inherent talent, they kick-started the sprightly "City Swan" and the stalking grunge guitars of album closer "Ragtime." Hogan may be going through menopause and Case's other bandmates going white around her--and her own magnificent mane touched with grey--but they can still give birth.
Critical Bias: I'm a sucker for redheads and beards.