Photo gallery and review of Neko Case with Lost In The Trees, at The Wilbur Theatre (Boston), Thursday, February 3, 2011.
The old saw about a great singer that would be able to sing the phone book and make it a captivating experience needs an update: Neko Case could sing the Chinese phone book and it would sound like the songs of angels. She's got a singular voice, one of power, beauty, and when needed, restraint. But most people already know this about her. What she doesn't get enough credit for is how she's blossomed into one of the better songwriters of her generation, both musically and lyrically. And like fellow songstress Barbara Manning, she's got a keen eye for non-obvious covers that fit both musically and lyrically into what she's created on her own. Tonight she played songs from Harry Nilsson ("Don't Forget Me") and Sparks ("Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth") that could easily have a Case byline if you weren't reading the liner notes or were familiar with the original. And the originals? Superlative.
The last two records have seen her at the peak of her game, and though she's not really touring on a new release (Middle Cyclone was released in 2009), she played a good chunk of it including the massive highs of "This Tornado Loves You" (slightly marred by the over-Edgy echo effect that Paul Rigby used), the lamentable search for a good man in "The Pharoahs" and then the subsequent turn as man-eating orca in "People Gotta Lot Of Nerve" and her 'Dear John' letter to the city of Seattle that is "Red Tide." An under-appreciated talent of Case is her easy stage manner and quick wit, and she riffed on random shout-outs from the audience ("Too much guitar!") and her response of "Don't admit that to the boys...they won't want to make out with you," which later morphed into a "More lute! More harpsichord!" refrain when she remarked about playing in a medieval church in England, and wondering what the persons buried below would say. Sidekick Kelly Hogan not only provided excellent harmonies, but also chipped in with some dry wit, slyly remarking on Rigby's suppressed need to use the bathroom to stay on stage and play by introducing him as their own Tycho Brahe. A generous four song encore ended with the deceptively lilting "Star Witness," deceptive in the dark matter of the lyrics that are masked by the gorgeous vocal chorus, a gambit that Case uses most effectively.
Lost In The Trees opened, and their debut LP has just been re-issued by Anti- records, Case's current label. A series of cancellations has caused tonight to be the first they've been able to actually perform opening duties for the tour, and it was one of the more arresting opening sets I've seen in some time. The backbone is folk, but the trappings are theatrical, and the flourishes during the songs bring strong emotional weight through a variety of instrumentation. The core complementary piece of their sound is the string trio, comprising two cellos and a violin, with additional brass, accordion, and percussion brought in to accompany the songs. Singer Ari Picker has a clear, effortless tenor, and the rest of the band fills in and steps back as needed. One to watch.