Neko Case Goes Underground

Omaha, Nebraska, USA; June 6, 2005

by Sean McCarthy

The cool basement of Sokol auditorium in Omaha -- known as the Underground -- was a haven from the wall of humidity that had settled in for the past week. My roommate let out a few sneezes on the way to the show "12 hours into my f*$&ing 24-hour Claritin." Both he and my co-concertgoer grumbled about the 9 p.m. show (with all due credit, all of us had to work early).

Still, Neko Case is one artist that you gladly sacrifice sleep for - without question. The crowd initially was made up of a lot of aging hippies and Gen-Xers. It was a nice contrast to the Shins, where you were awash in ironic t-shirts. These folks didn't give a crap about how they looked -- polo shirts, untucked generic striped shirts. Heck, one girl I saw had a Penn State t-shirt on, jeans and a clip that had at least 20 keys jangling from her waist.

After Low Skies performed their set to a polite reception (think Jeff Buckley's band backed by the Verve's Richard Ashcroft with a blown vocal cord), Neko Case's band took the stage. The girl with the Penn State t-shirt politely weaved her way through the crowd, climbed up on stage and began tuning her guitar. Internally, I was banging my head against the wall -- I'm way too shy to be a stalker, but I definitely wanted to have a 'fan moment' where I thanked her for making one of the best albums of the decade (Blacklisted) and thank her for capturing the generic vibe and loneliness of Tucson (where she recorded Blacklisted and is recording her next album).

For fans that had not seen Neko Case live, her vocal translation from studio to live is virtually identical. Her voice (think Patsy Cline signing at a piano bar designed by David Lynch) is one of those few voices currently in rock that shocks you with its openness and power. She is one artist that you will not confuse with any other artist when you hear a song by her on the radio.

Case's set focused heavily from her latest live album, The Tigers Have Spoken. The album is a mix of Case's original alt-country/lounge/rock style ("If You Knew") and some extremely smart covers (Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue"). In the course of the show, Case stopped to tune her guitars (two acoustics, one electric). While she was tuning her guitar, her crowd banter was easygoing and never forced. The sometimes off-key acoustics from her supporting band gave the show an informal charm. However, you can tell Case is a perfectionist; at the end of virtually every song, she kindly instructed her soundman where to tone down the volume and where to add more and less reverb (other than the poser rock star move of raising a thumb up or down and mouthing 'can we get more?').

In addition to fan favorites ("Blacklisted," "Deep Red Bells," "Set Out Running"), Case tried out some new songs and rewarded the crowd of about 500 with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain."

Throughout the show, she tousled and occasionally tied back her hair. Some may see that as a nervous tic, but her laser-focused gaze toward the audience and her dead-on hit of every note shows a confidence that has come from years of hitting the road with various rock, country and even punk backup bands.

The fans, for the most part, let Case and her band play whatever the hell they wanted. There was an occasional cry for her cover of Aretha Franklin's "Running Out of Fools" (sort of rude by the concertgoer, but who can blame her?), but Case politely dismissed the request, saying the band hadn't rehearsed that song.

The set clocked in at a little more than an hour-and-a-half. She closed with "Furnace Room Lullaby" and said her band would be available to meet the audience and to sell stuff after the show because the sales were needed to fuel their vans. The show may have been low-key, but Case packed a punch that left you hoping she would come back and perform at the small venue of Sokol Underground, even though you hope enough people catch on to her to fill a much larger venue.

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