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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fresh Batch of America Hate: Neko Case at the Park West

It's hard to believe that it must have been nearly 5 years ago that my dear C sent me Blacklisted (in addition to a number of other goodies that formed the core of my musical loves of the 21st century). I don't really remember what song I listened to first, but it was "Deep Red Bells" that crawled under my skin and hit all the right spots: incredibly evocative lyrics ("It looks a lot like engine oil/And tastes like being poor and small/And popsicles in summer"), music rich, textured, and distinctive enough to carry the lyrics, and, of course, THAT VOICE.

In 2003, OTSFM announced a Neko Case concert in December. The first show sold out so quickly that they added a second. I snatched up 4 tickets, hoping to lure C to Chicago, figuring that M would come along, and securing another ticket for Elijah and/or Miriam. The plan began to crumble immediately. There was no way that C could make it. M had to travel on business. The Prophets, they never call, they never write, and I just sit here in the dark and knit.

When the date came, I asked L if he wanted to go as well as our friend J (no, not J, J. No, the other J.). You all see where this is going, right? The concert got canceled because Neko was sick, and it was ultimately rescheduled for a date in January when M and I were in Vegas with the outlaws. Bad Matilda! No Neko. Last year, tickets for her in Chicago sold out almost immediately. I toyed with the idea of seeing her in Milwaukee, but couldn't really spare the cash, the time, etc.

But this year, this year I was determined. And then the first two shows sold out before I even knew they existed. Happily, the Wednesday night show still had tickets available. It did mean missing my Talking Heads ensemble (although a master plan very nearly developed whereby we'd reschedule class for Tuesday so that several others who wanted to see her could go as well), but such is the price of fandom.

M and I pointed ourselves northward and were happy to spy a parking garage near the Park West that was merely overpriced, rather than outrageously expensive. Apparently it's the stairs fee that bumps up the price, but no matter: I did not kill myself going down the ramp in my chunky patent leather mary janes, which constitutes a pretty huge personal victory for Og.

The time on a concert ticket is a fundamentally postmodern text: It might denote the time the doors open; the opening act might begin then; or it may defy attempts to pin it down to a single meaning decipherable by any plurality of concert goers. In this case, the doors were already open at about 7:15 and we made our way through the crowd of those desperately sucking down a last smoke, past the ID checker (a friendly guy who was horrified that he called me "sir" at first), then the ticket taker, past the merchandise table, and eventually upstairs.

We grabbed two barstools along the back wall that were at the end of a row. I'd chosen these as they put us closet to the center of the venue, so I figured we'd have the least weird sight lines possible. These also happened to be immediately next to a small stretch of about 10 low chairs fronted by a counter that were protected by a velvet rope and a security guard.

This turned out to be one means (but not the only one!) of accessing the talent-holding area. Initially, it just seemed to be well-connected folk flashing their 5up3r-533kr1t badges to get in. Then at one point, I found myself inches from a woman and I said to myself, "I think that's Nora O'Connor." Except I had no idea why it would be Nora O'Connor, nor did I really know why I was so certain it was she (oh, hey! I did not know [consciously, anyway, let's not plumb the depths of my unconscious] that she worked on Twin Cinema, given that I've only seen her once and she was wearing a pointy Peter Pan hat. Cutting to the chase, it was Nora O'Connor, but more on that later.

We're still not clear on the relationship between this entrance to the Promised Land and the stage. After tuning and setting up her guitars on stage, Neko suddenly appeared inches from M and made her way back to parts unknown. Some of her band then reemerged from there and went by us to get to the stage, but Neko herself simply appeared from the wings in a totally different outfit. Clearly there was a pneumatic tube under the floor connecting our location with the stage. This officially makes the Park West my favorite venue.

I am reminded at this point of a strange exchange from years ago. A person on a usenet group who didn't like me very much e-mailed me to ask an anthropological question: Someone elsewhere on usenet was claiming that it was Well Known that Stevie Nicks rarely did her own live performances, instead employing an army of doubles. One could confirm this easily by pausing a video of her and taking two magical facial measurements, the ratio of which was absolutely unique to each human being. I assured her that this was breath-takingly full of crap and that I could go into details if necessary, but she was content with my unsupported expert opinion. Anyway, no one needs to worry about Neko using a double, because, hey! crazy-awesome pneumatic tube.

When the lights went down to mark the beginning of Sonny Smith's opening set, I remarked that it was a prompt 7:30 start, which M once again contradicted with his atoms. Smith and his electric guitar were joined by a drummer, bassist, and (and this is embarrassing, because I really don't know) two female singers who might or might not have been Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor, who would also sing with Neko. You see, they changed their clothes from these cool, blue-collar, Rosie-the-Riveter-vibe button-down shirts and jeans to more girly clothes, and it was all confusing and stuff.

Smith was not especially memorable (which is more of a compliment than it really sounds like when speaking of opening acts). I was pretty favorably impressed with his lyrics (no surprise that his website features his writings and even plays pretty prominently), and his voice is well-suited to their delivery, sort of shades of Lou Reed bleeding into Rex Harrison sing-talking at times. However, a lot of the music was often strange and draggy. Much of the first few songs consisted of Smith strumming simple chords on his electric (why not acoustic for some of that early stuff, I wondered?) and the rest of the band not doing much of anything else. Smith himself seemed mightily uncomfortable as the pretty-boy front man and there was a lot of down time between songs. It wasn't a total loss, though. Some of the later stuff showed a lot of promise. In particular, there was a song (I think it was called "Cheap Love") that started out as usual, and then the band just launched into this perfectly timed, crazy Velvet Underground-like jam that was quite cool.

During Sonny Smith's set, both M and I noted with some confusion the presence of a small screen on a stand lurking near the drum kit. As the band cleared their stuff, a man and woman came out and moved a table and an honest-to-god overhead projector in front of the screen. There was a brief speech delivered over the speaker system about not letting the noble overhead projector die out of the classroom. The two folks who'd been doing the set up stayed out there and began coloring with markers on a number of overheads. It was kind of difficult to tell what was going on because the focus on the slides was not great. It was good enough to indicate that the pages were from some kind of gender-bending coloring book that was aimed at kids and that some of it was quite funny. For example, one featured two little girls standing in front of a pair of public washrooms. One looks dismayed and says, "I should have work a skirt. The pants bathroom is all full."

Fortunately, Neko gave enough information during her thanks of everyone during the encore that I've been able to piece things together. Jacinta Bunnell, who appears to be a friend of Neko's, is touring with Neko and the aforementioned coloring books. Do have a look at the pages that are available. The website is not well constructed, but those are worth it. And can I just say that the inclusion of those coloring books in the show is an incredible bit of synchronicity for me for reasons that I'm still too torn between blind rage and overwhelming grief to go into. They are cool. Buy them for your children, or I will fuck your shit up.

The disassembly of the screen and projector were regrettably without grace, thus making my inner stage manager cry. It was clear that they hadn't formulated a smooth plan for getting that on or off the stage and I got the sense that the clean-up and prep for Neko and the band took a lot longer than it should have. So long, in fact, that they sent Terri Hemmert out about midway through to assure the crowd that the toting and hauling would eventually end and give way to Neko, which it did.

While she'd been tuning (and when she walked by, about 4 inches from us), Neko had been wearing a double-breasted button-up coat and jeans, and her hair was piled up in a ponytail. As always, she looked adorable, but I wondered about the wooly coat in juxtaposition to stage lights. When she actually took the stage, she was wearing a black dress that fell in tiers of material from her shoulders all the way to her knees. It was kind of flappery, but a bit fussy on top. Late in the show, someone yelled out, "Is that your real rack?" Her reply, "Word, that's my real rack." She then looked down and added, "You can't even see it in this," and then commenced to bouncing by way of a road map to her rack. (And no, JRH I am not making that up just to rub it in that you're a loser and didn't go to the concert.)

Whatever the dress's failings might have been, I fell in immediate lust with her shoes, which were black ankle-strap heels. I was not alone in this. Someone else yelled out (there was a lot of weird yelling out) that they liked her shoes, and Neko replied, somewhat wearily, "Thanks. You wouldn't if you were wearing them. They make you walk like a goat." She demonstrated to the general amusement of all and apologized in advance for the amount of grabbing the mic stand to keep herself upright that was indubitably in store.

They opened the show with "Things That Scare Me" (off Blacklisted), which is well-suited to making instant fans of The Voice, starting as it does. She had a brain fart going into the second verse and started with "fluorescent lights" again, but immediately recovered. She even managed to slip in an aside to Jon Rauhouse "Oooh, I screwed that up. I'll start again," and launch into the correct beginning for the verse, all in the space of about a bar and a half. Also off Blacklisted, she did "I Wish I Was the Moon" (I'm so glad for this. It's one of my absolute favorites of hers, andwith the harmonies from Kelly and Nora, I still have the shivers.), "Lady Pilot," and "Deep Red Bells" (Neko, have you been reading my diary?)

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was quite well represented, obviously, as her most recent album. "Hold On, Hold On," and "Maybe Sparrow," were particularly stirring to hear live. And oh my sweet heaven, the encore of "John Saw That Number," excavated the worshipper in my irreligious soul. (Greedy bitch that the inner worshipper is, though, she wished Neko had done "A Widow's Toast.") There was not a lot from Furnace Room Lullaby in the set. My certainly faulty memory says that we got "Set Out Running," pretty early in the set and a bit later maybe "Bought and Sold." I know it's old, but can I help it if I'm a white trash girl who loves the twang as much as she loves everything else? A well, it was at least not shut out completely like the even older The Virginian.

White trash though I may be, I'm a bad, bad fan girl, because there are several CDs that I don't have of hers, including The Tigers Have Spoken (which, really, I swear I'd bought at some point, and how the heck have I been living without "Soulful Shade of Blue" anyway?), Live from Austin, TX (that one I knew I didn't have, but OMG! "Buckets of Rain"! You haven't lived until you've heard her do the honey babies in "BoR"), and Canadian Amp (why, I ask you, do I not have the CD she recorded in her underwear?). Perhaps it's not that I'm not too bright, but I was unconsciously preparing myself to fall in love with her music for the first time all over again.

As I've written before about other musicians' whose work I love, I tend to love them even more live. With Neko, I wasn't sure what seeing her performa would be like. Her albums are so beautifully constructed and recorded that they convey a strong sense of place. I always feel like I'm simultaneously sitting quietly in the studio and on a Neko-led walking tour of her own heart. But, true to form, I found that there really is just something about watching as she creates those auditory fireworks that go soaring straight up, then blossom, absolutely filling every available space.

When I saw her performance of "Maybe Sparrow," on Letterman, I wrote to B, my guitar teacher, that there's no "studio magic" with her. Her voice is just that big and beautiful and fluid and dynamic. And, of course, she's smack dab in the middle of an amazing group of people so talented that it borders on painful to be in their presence and contemplate one's own unworthiness.

We were especially jealous to hear that Jon Rauhouse is opening for tonight's show. M always gets a little blood rage going when someone demonstrates their command of multiple instruments. Rauhouse started out on banjo, nipped on over to the steel, and later picked up the acoustic. My "Best in Show" performance goes to him on banjo though, first because he is every inch the rock star on it (in fact, until Neko introduced the band, we were referring to him as "Banjo Slash," because he was so intent and in the moment), and second because it made me so aware of how much the banjo is the lead instrument in a lot of Neko's music.

Paul Rigby and his guitar skills deserve better than to be google buried beneath some artist of the same name, plus he gets bonus points (with M at least) for his hat and his cleverly disguised, not-actually-tiny acoustic (the body was mostly black bleeding into brown around the sound hole and the black parts blended into his clothing, making it look as if it was really teeny). He and Rauhouse worked so perfectly with one another that it was often difficult to determine which of them was playing a lead or particularly textured passage at any given time.

At the risk of screwing up badly, I'm going to say that I think it was Mike Belitsky of The Sadies on drums. (Don't let the fact that the website says they're all in Seattle tonight fool you. The site is out of date and a bit of a mess.) Whoever it was, he had an interesting style, moving easily from a minimalist "a skinny-tie, a lone snare and thou" approach that would be at home on stage with Junior Brown to the brisk smart-pop backbeat that hints at Neko's secret identity with The New Pornographers.

I'm in even worse shape when it comes to naming the guy on upright bass. Possibly Tom V. Ray (who must be in the witness protection program, as he seems to have virtually no photographs on the web associated with his name). I swear I have no innate grudge against those who play crucial tempo-keeping instruments with style and skill. I just can't seem to get my damned molskine in the right bag at the right time so I can make the occasional note and not rely on my defective brain too much. It was, however, the gentleman in this video. And whether or not he was Tom V. Ray, he was a much appreciated contributor to the festivities.

Neko herself, of course, switched between two electric guitars (both gibsons, I think), an acoustic, and an adorable tenor that, unfortunately, kept giving her some problems with tuning. Although she mostly did rhythm (and didn't even play on several songs), it was remarkable for how closely everyone watched her. I suspect that this was only partly due to her mesmerizing personality and largely attributable to those not-infrequent moments when the whole ensemble becomes percussion and thus must be absolutely in sync (ew, not that in sync, filthy minds you have) with one another.

As for vocals, Kelly Hogan was absolutely invaluable (no disrespect intended to Nora, who was also wonderful in her more limited appearances, but Kelly did yeoman's work). It's high praise indeed to say that someone's voice is even noticeable alongside Neko's, and Kelly's goes above and beyond. Watching someone so obviously immersed in and intent on the music was riveting, too. I know her contributions were as well and carefully rehearsed as any, but she and Neko together managed to seem as though they were discovering brand new things together. Whether or not they are good friends, they certainly give you the feeling that they have a mutual fan club going on.

Despite the opening "walk like goat" moment, the patter was a little sporadic early on. I've no idea if this is the case, but Neko's speaking voice sounded a little bit ragged, as though she was tired or sick (probably the latter, if anything, as this was the first show of their next leg of the tour), which might have had something to do with it. But her struggle with the tenor guitar both opened her up a bit and set the tone for the evening. Someone asked what the instrument was and she confided that it was her airplane buddy, because she could tell the gate folks at American that it was a viola and they'd say, "Oh! Bring that right on." Now, if you say you've got a guitar, they tell you with a sneer that you've got to check it beneath the plane, "Ma'am. They ma'am you real hard. If you've got a stroller? They're all 'Sure! Bring your shit-stinking kid right on!' But a guitar . . . "

And apparently, they broke the bridge on one of her checked guitars, so the bitterness is understandable. This tribute to the friendliness and service of American Airlines led into a list of what America hates that got longer and funnier throughout the night. The anger and hate flowed through her until she was revealing the depth of her love for Conan the Barbarian, right down to the fact that her favorite moment is when James Earl Jones's head goes bouncing down the stairs (as if there's some competition for best moment in the film—hell that may be the best moment in cinema ever). Oh, and Sandahl Bergman's blue eye shadow? Killer, according to Neko.

So, anyone want to make a case for why I shouldn't be driving to Grand Rapids, MI, Saturday to see her and Emmylou Harris? Didn't think so.

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