Words / Photo: Alex Wood
Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps seeing both Neil Young’s sparse acoustic set and The National’s over-the-top performance at the Chicago Theatre in the past few weeks spoiled me, but Neko Case left me underwhelmed.
The outstanding songwriting was there, and Case’s voice sounded strong as ever, but the six-piece band couldn’t seem to fill the theater’s massive space.
This isn’t to say it was a bad performance, and there were plenty of high points.
“Where Did I Leave That Fire” opened the show on a soft, ghostly note, Case approaching the microphone alone with the band slowly fading in. The band consisted of two guitarists, a bassist and drummer, and a background vocalist, with Case typically only singing.
“Lion’s Jaws” was introduced as “a make-out song” and used the background vocalist wisely, strengthening the track with harmonies. “City Swans” featured a trombone line by the guitarist but lost momentum by its end.
“Margaret vs. Pauline” used Case’s voice to its fullest, the singer playing a small, beaten acoustic guitar, belting out the lyrics over its sparse arrangement.
Though roughly a fourth of the seats in the venue were empty, the fans present were very enthusiastic, yelling, “I love you Neko” and similar quips after nearly every track and always applauding loudly.
Visually, there was little to draw the audience in. Stage lighting was hardly used for the show at all. The backdrop was a simple illustration of eels being chased by daggers and swords, Case’s newest album’s name written in full. Band members hardly moved on stage throughout the show.
The a cappella section in “Deep Red Bells” helped elevate the song to a new height, still leaning on Case’s gorgeous voice. “Nothing To Remember,” a track from the Hunger Games soundtrack, packed a solid punch with sporadic drumming and a great vocal melody.
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” was strangely a blatant high point of the set, performed entirely a cappella with the band chiming in on background harmonies, its lyrics and delivery intense and heartfelt, Case’s vocals finally seeming to fill the venue.
Yet the set as a whole hardly had momentum, songs rarely building to be more than the sum of their parts, the performers sticking to the simple arrangements, devoid of solos or risks. This left the success of each track entirely up to how Case wrote it.
The end of the set held a few surprisingly lively tracks.
“Red Tide” was performed with sharp electric-guitar quarter-notes, building energy up slightly while “Man” showcased the band rocking its hardest all night, the electric track being more rock than folk.
The double encore was constructed awkwardly, opening with “Sleep All Summer,” a duet written by guitarist Eric Bachmann, Case’s vocals the only saving grace in the otherwise dull performance.
Fortunately, the remainder of the encore featured beautiful concert staples “If You Knew” and “Maybe Sparrow,” though followed by a less-impressive performance of “Ragtime” with Dodos awkwardly providing background vocals and percussion.
A second encore followed with older track “Set Out Running,” its country melody and twang a reminder of Neko Case’s early days, a sound abandoned entirely for her last record.
The Dodos opened the show, their simple indie-rock styling translating poorly in such a large venue, foreshadowing the problems to come.
1. Where Did I Leave That Fire
2. This Tornado Loves You
3. The Next Time You Say Forever
4. Bracing For Sunday
5. Lion’s Jaws
6. The Tigers Have Spoken
7. Polar Nettles
8. City Swans
9. Margaret vs. Pauline
10. Deep Red Bells
11. Local Girl
12. Nothing To Remember
13. That Teenage Feeling
14. Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
15. The Pharaohs
16. Calling Cards
17. Hold On, Hold On
18. Red Tide
19. Night Still Comes
21. Sleep All Summer (Neko Case and Eric Bachmann)
22. If You Knew
23. Maybe Sparrow
24. Ragtime (with Dodos)
25. Set Out Running