Last Night: Neko Case at the Warfield
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Better than: Fighting a cyclone.
It looked like Guitar Center up there on stage last night before Neko Case strode up to the mic, with a dozen different guitars lined up for the cherry-haired songstress to pick up and play over the course of the evening.
The arsenal of instruments only added to the feeling that the Warfield was less a club that night, and more Case's club house--a place she hung out with old friends and collaborators like Kelly Hogan, piling her long hair into knots on her head between every song; telling both real and made up stories about, say, unicorns coming out of her ass that she would then "ride like pool noodles"; and singing so loud and clear she could've knocked the dust off the venue's golden rafters.
Live, Case is nothing if not personable, and with Hogan as her backup singer and side(wo)man, she turns a performance that sounds flawless as a studio recording into an old-fashioned variety show--meaning plenty of jokes that seemed to put both the band, and her fans, at ease.
Case and Hogan were consummate, entertaining storytellers, with the latter taking the spotlight nearly as much as the headliner between songs. Together they discussed Case's hairy greyhounds. They divulged how they spend their time off (Case: "Reorganizing my scrap paper drawer. I'm not kidding." Hogan: "Watching the ants and drinking white wine on my porch. And when it gets late enough, going inside to watch Frasier"). Every now and then a fan would try to take advantage of the long pauses between songs to yell out a request, to which Hogan would respond with a smile and a "Duly noted."
These punchline-heavy conversations lightened the mood, but with Case's set list, it would've been a memorable (although half as fun) show even without them. The fans didn't even necessarily need the giant screen behind the band, which played animated shorts beneath a giant owl head with glowing yellow eyes. The expert group--which included a second backup singer, a bassist, a drummer, and additional folks to pick up and play all those guitars--easily brought to life songs from Case's latest, Middle Cyclone, as well as tunes off The Tigers Have Spoken, and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (she brought out "Maybe Sparrow" early in the night).
The new material sounded great, particularly "People Got a Lotta Nerve"'s refrain of "I'm a man-man-maneater." From the stage, you could picture the singer as a consumer of many boyfriends, her strengths obvious but also understated in her lack of pretensions. It'd be easy to imagine her admirers in deep long before they even realized they were crushed out on this independent powerhouse. She of course balances out the toughness within the song, and with confessions like "Vengeance is Sleeping"'s "I did not know what a brute I was"-- and with older tracks, such as the lonesome ballad "I Wish I Was the Moon" ("No pills for what I feel/This is crazy/I wish I was the moon tonight.")
By the time Case closed out her encore with Fox Confessor's "John Saw That Number," she'd played the roles of a player, a loner, a comedian, an art critic (taking shots at the Grace Slick artwork decorating her hotel room), and a fumbler. (On that latter bit, she mocked herself for constantly being clumsy, to which Hogan responded, "This is San Francisco. There's room for everything here. There's probably even a chat room for that.") None of these roles came off phony, however. She's a performer at ease with taking on a variety of voices as her own--all while making you feel like the show she's created is no big thing, except perhaps in volume.
Missed the show? Case plays again at the Warfield tonight.
By the way: Former Californian Jason Lytle opened the show with a set of very sweet, folk-dusted tunes that belied the bitter feelings informing the lyrics. His rhetorical questions were uniformly melancholy, with refrains asking "How did it get so bad?" or reminding a lover that he'll "never see you again." His solo album, Yours Truly, The Commuter, is a little too quiet and slow for my taste on disc, but live the songs really came together, augmented by a simple band set up. After jokingly asking the other musicians on stage with him "What kind of band are we?" he answered his own question with a cover of the country classic "Today I Started Loving You Again." There was a homespun charm to Lytle's set that went well with Case's.