Acclaimed American songstress delivers
Nobody notices the small figure with a mane of red hair in a duffel coat and huge backpack as she picks her way through the crowd. Seconds later, Neko Case is on stage.
As entrances go, it’s some way short of grand. She’s wearing no make-up and she swiftly strips down to jeans and a vest. She apologises for being late and for the fact that she’s left the shirt she had intended to wear?”with buttons”?in her hotel room. But, hell. She looks great anyway.
And she sounds even better. She starts with “Favorite” and you’re immediately knocked backwards by the sheer lung-busting lustiness of her voice. “Can you give me a bit more?,” she asks the sound engineer. “I’ll take all the reverb I can get.” The twang is surely the thang with Case.
But she also loves to leave acres of empty, rolling prairie to allow the songs room to breathe. There’s no drummer, just Daryl White on stand-up bass, Jon Rauhouse on banjo and pedal steel and Neko’s own guitar.
Ten minutes into the set and a stripped-down version of “Twist The Knife” reveals just why John Peel claimed it was the best song he’d heard in 10 years. For “Pretty Girls” from current LP Blacklisted, she straps on an electric guitar, but it’s still no way as loud as that voice. You thought Bette Midler’s cover of “Buckets Of Rain” was ballsy? Neko’s version makes her sound like Shirley Temple. Not that she isn’t capable of nuance and subtlety. She slows Dylan’s melody right down and when she sings “everything about you is bringing me misery”, there’s a delicious frisson to the pain that few others have the emotional range to evoke.
Next up is the title song from her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby. “It’s about cutting up your boyfriend and putting the body in the furnace,” she tells us. More evidence that the levels of sex and violence in folk music make Eminem look like a choirboy.
It’s followed by a Hank Williams cover and?like Hank and Gram before her?Neko’s country is white soul music. The point is emphasised with a version of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, which betrays the gospel influence she talked about in a recent issue of Uncut.
She almost keeps the best until last with “In California”, a song of such unimaginable beauty it sounds like something Jim Webb should have written years ago for Glen Campbell. When she announces that it’s available on Canadian Amp, a DIY album recorded in her kitchen and only on sale at gigs, there’s a stampede to the back of the room to snatch up all remaining copies.