“I think this place is haunted by Scott Walker,” Neko Case says, standing in front of Union Chapel’s pulpit and staring keenly around the intimidatingly high vault above, “I feel at home now, although I guess it’s not really an exorcism if he’s still alive. More of a cohabitation seance.” The exorcism in question is the surprise surfacing of her rarely aired rendition of Walker’s Duchess that graced her debut solo album The Virginian, all weeping guitars and searching vocals although she giggles through the awkward lines “I come listening / I touch touching”. She explains, “Scott Walker booby traps all of his songs with lines only he can pull off. He’s like a ghost saying ‘See how hard it is to cover my song!’”
But, if any modern performer is capable of going toe to toe with the shapeshifting lounge lizard Walker it is the indomitable Case. And if her penchant for malleably inhabiting the songs of others is apparent through the many covers that litter her recent collected works Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, just as apparent is her ability to keenly portray torrents of conflicting emotions in her songwriting, an impression solidified by the career-spanning selection she draws on tonight.
She sets out her intentions early, refusing to beat around the bush. The introspective haze instigated by her lazily strummed tenor guitar on opener Outro With Bees and the cutting electric swagger of the intensely autobiographical Hold On, Hold On both back up Case’s central challenge on Man’s gender-twisting cow-punk: “You will deal with me directly”. If, as she asserts early on, the prospect of unearthing seldom played songs within the imposing Islington church terrifies her, she shows absolutely no signs of it other than a nervy energy that lends her performances an electrifying rawness.
Indeed, Case is such a powerful stage presence with a shock of flaming red hair and a voice that barely needs amplification in this space, that it is hard to believe she ever occupied anywhere other than centre stage, as she did drumming in the Vancouver punk scene of the 90’s or acting frequently as a creative foil in Canadian outfits like The New Pornographers. In personality she is charismatic, unpredictable, and just a little bit weird, beleaguered tonight by troublesome tights (“Even if you safety pin ‘em to your bra you still have to pull them up”) which she tuts and then mimes a temper tantrum before laying into Night Still Comes. As throughout the evening, her dutiful backing band buoy up her vocals with Crooked Fingers guitarist Eric Bachmann lending dramatic keys and longtime cohorts Jon Rauhouse and Tom V. Ray adding trembling guitar rumbles and measured bass respectively. But, it is in moments when Case is in full swing like the goading chorus “You never held it at the right angle” and Maybe Sparrow’s explosive break that her bandmates seem to shrink into the background behind her unbridled hollering.
On such captivating form, lesser played songs sparkle. Blacklisted lumbers with drunken drama and shimmering noirish guitars straight into a rendition of Sarah Vaughan’s Look For Me, spooky organ and Tom Waits-esque bass adding an eerie undertone to Case’s resounding vocal flights. Not that these deep-diving expeditions into her back catalogue are at the expense of staple favourites. This Tornado Loves You and Fox Confessor Brings The Flood rattle forward with exhilarated abandon while Middle Cyclone is both tender and brutal in its emotional honesty, lazy acoustic strumming and a twinkling music box both imbuing a sense of childhood innocence and terror into Case’s admission that she “Can’t quite scrape up enough / To ride the bus to the outskirts / Of the fact that I need love”.
It’s in this contrast between setlist staples and deep cuts over the course of the evening that Case’s development as a songwriter is vividly illustrated: From desolate country-noir sketch writer on early albums and animal fable revelator on Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, through to clear-eyed narrator of bubbling psychodramas on recent albums Middle Cyclone and The Worse It Gets, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, which rightfully garnered both public and critical praise. But, what also becomes abundantly clear is how perceptive a writer she was even fifteen years ago. Case in point, love drunk torch song Bought and Sold from 2000’s Furnace Room Lullabies and the lacerating self-alienation of Vengeance Is Sleeping could be two sides of the same story told nine years apart, the former’s depiction of longing’s crumbling lows and giddy highs in the reeling chorus “Nobody said that love was gonna be kind / But they did say it was pleasurable as it was divine” feeding seamlessly into the latter’s excoriating reflection fuelled by Bachmann’s delicate picked acoustic and Case’s devastating cry, “I’m not the man you thought I was / My love has never lived indoors / I had to drag it home by force / Hired dogs at both my wrists”.
Possessing the fearlessness of a seasoned performer whose conviction is drawn from a deep understanding of how their profession effects their survival in the face of depression, Case confers the same fervour to old and new songs alike, as well as ones from others that she has claimed for herself. During a cover heavy encore, Case and Bachmann’s powerful duet on Crooked Finger’s song Sleep All Summer destroys whatever resistance the audience may, improbably, still have left while frequent set-closer Knock Loud ends the night on a manic note, Rauhouse’s wiry guitar jarring against Ray’s bowed bass as Case brings the lonely desolation of the Sook-Yin Lee song into forensic focus. Now entering the fourth act of her career, Case has emerged as a lyrical force of nature and whatever may come next, her greatness is assured.
Review by: James MacKinnon
More from Neko Case
Watch this NPR Tiny Desk Concert she gave in 2013: