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Monday, 21 October 2013 15:10

Concert review: Neko Case (with Karen Elson) wins hearts and minds at the Pageant, Sunday, October 20

Neko Case at the Pageant Neko Case at the Pageant Kate McDaniel
Written by Blair Stiles

The pit of the Pageant was decked out with chairs in a hashtag pattern. The assigned seating made for the appearance of an assembly, all gathered for Neko Case and Karen Elson.

Both the opener and the headliner crooned with countrified lilts for a relaxing, well-mannered evening. From the balcony, the demographic could be sighted as hip 20-somethings with flannel penchants and middle-aged couples. All were well-behaved and all applauded with giddy slaps for Elson.

The opener, who is entangled in a custody battle with ex-husband Jack White, sizzled as she warmed up the chill evening with a sultry take on Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues." Her siren-like pipes resembled Case's to a comfortable degree, and both women welcome the grittiness of Prohibition-era blues in their compositions. Elson indulged the melancholia and added a slide guitarist -- the legendary Bucky Baxter -- to her tour entourage. She followed the Johnson cover with an original tune, "Last Laugh" off "The Ghost Who Walks." Less struck by the devil's charms, "Last Laugh" provided Elson with an opportunity to echo the headliner and indulge in her gloomy folk aesthetics. The slide guitar moaned through the Pageant like a forlorn creature calling for companionship. It was similar enough to Case's compositions that it created excitement for the night's headliner -- an aural foreshadowing of what was to come.

The black stage curtain closed prior to Case and company's emergence. Behind them, the shuffle of equipment and quiet tuning eked out. Finally the underwater pangs of "Where Did I Leave That Fire" came forth as the curtain opened to reveal Case, who curtsied. Clad in a cardigan, loose shirt, long shorts and boots, Case's grey-scale ensemble did not indicate the colorful and often cornball stage banter that was to come. The best example would be quoting Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" as she chortled out a riff celebrating making out. Case did not embody the look of someone who cared to impress. Last night, she did not have to try. Case, whose first record came out in 1997, is a veteran to stage and song. The entire night she coaxed the pliable crowd into guffaws and awes with flippant commentary and a voice as engrossing live as on record.

Her falsetto on the outro of "That Teenage Feeling" was authoritative and had the girth of her lower register. In that moment, Case's voice took over as the star of the show. It conducted the audience's attention, and Case's backing band, including longtime back-up singer Kelly Hogan, couldn't match its fire. This could be due to the set's low mix, whether calculated or a mishap, but it feels fitting to give credit to Case's control of her instrument. The tone of the set was managed by Case. Her records seem to carry the weight of 10,000 heart breaks, but live, the compositions came off with less atmosphere, instead sounding looser and lighter in percussion.

Navigating through her deep catalog, Case primarily drew on her latest album, "The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, the More I Love You," as well as "Middle Cyclone," and "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." Selections from the latter brought forth the most rapturous applause from the audience. Even with a false start before "Margaret vs. Pauline," Case held court. "I had the wrong pick," she explained. "That was bbbuuuulllllsssshhhiiiiit." The tune, which is arguably the mantra for every ugly duckling with a sibling bestowed with grace, was revamped for the live stage with an accelerated tempo and jangled backing instrumentation. Yet, Case's vocal volume engulfed the audience -- not so much in its loudness but in its pastoral, countrified warble.

Elson and Case managed to fill the Pageant with quiet power and curated the evening with confidence and vocal dexterity. As we left the club, it was impossible to not feel relaxed and satiated. We came to listen to women sing -- and sing well. That gift was given to us by two tigresses whose work revolves around the impossibilities of blending the supernatural with commodities like love and laughter. When they brought their whimsical and moody lore to the stage, their work came across as adult bedtime stories -- there to bid us well into the evening with a welcome break from reality.


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