It's not exactly an original observation that listening to Neko Case's voice beseeches the ghost of Patsy Cline to hover nearby. The power and passion in both Neko and Patsy's voices cause shivers to go up and down your spine and is almost enough to make the most cynical open up their minds to the thought that perhaps God does indeed exist.
Neko gave a stellar show last Wednesday at First Ave. She said she was suffering from a cold but even during the acapella parts of her songs the sheer emotion of her singing seemed almost beyond what mere humans are capable of. She's a crooner in the hippest sense of the word.
Her band is versatile enough to skillfully adapt to the different style of Case's songs from country to jazz to other worldly. Backup singer Kelly Hogan wrapped her voice around Neko's as tight as the braids that Neko kept nervously spinning her long red hair into all night long. It got to the point I wasn't listening to the words much as I just found myself lost in the sound of it all. Even when Neko was singing the high "woos" I was transfixed. Ethereal, positively ethereal.
She did a good mix of old songs with songs from her recently released CD, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Several songs were introduced as being "sad" or "scary" as if those familiar with Case's songwriting needed the descriptive warning. My favorite songs were a trio of covers: Buffy St. Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue" that had tremendous energy; "Wayfaring Stranger" which up until this evening my favorite version was Emmy Lou Harris' with a close second being Neko's version on last year's CD, The Tigers Have Spoken; and Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" with a joyful arrangement that only enhanced the bittersweet lyrics. "Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must/You do what must do and you do it well/I do it for you, honey baby can't you tell?"
That's not to say that Neko's own songs didn't hold their own. There was the cutting "The Needle Has Landed" that had a driving groove; "John Saw that Number" that taught us all a bit more about the whole John the Baptist fable accompanied by a delirious banjo(!) solo; and a spooky "I Wish I was the Moon" where Neko's warble on the refrain, "I'm so tired I wish I was the moon tonight..." was so real and heartfelt that one wonders how she could convey such authenticity on the very first night of her tour.
An added bonus to the evening was that Martha Wainwright was the opening act. For the past five years I have burned a compilation of my favorite songs from the particular year for my family and friends. Last year's comp included songs from both Martha and Neko.
Martha is a charismatic live performer with her bouncy and sincere performing style. When she closed her set with the seductive "G.P.T." I was somewhere near heaven.
Earlier that day I test drove a shiny red Mini-Cooper. The ride was smooth. The car was my dream. It didn't take much thinking (critical or otherwise) to decide what I had to do. I'm in love with all things red these days. I made an offer to the owner and we settled on terms. Today we closed the deal and I drove home in my less than practical but coolest vehicle I'll ever own.
Of course the Mini has a fine speaker system and I deliberately made sure that Neko Case was the first voice that accompanied me on my ride. Driving home on 35W with Neko belting out "Twist the Knife" it occurred to me that it's been a long time since I felt so happy and content. I felt the power, both in pressing down on the gas pedal and from the music blasting in my ears. I'm not quite sure who will share in the ride during the life of my Mini (MY Mini!) but for the first time in a long time I'm glad I'm having such thoughts. The songs aren't so sad if you take the time to appreciate the road you've traveled to sing them.