Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Neko Case - Canopy Club, Urbana

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

It’s unseasonably warm here in Champaign-Urbana. The weather gets like this here in November: schizophrenic, with wild mercury jerks back and forth from freezing to oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-believe-it’s-not September balminess. Such warmth can make a chap reflective on the year in sound, and I’m not alone. Standing in line to see Neko Case Friday night at the Canopy Club, I heard folks both in front of and behind me talking about their year in rock. Most were reminiscing about the last time they saw Neko. One guy said that he went to see her on his 18th birthday at his very fist 18+ show. (Awwwe.)  Another girl talked about Neko’s Sunday afternoon set at this year’s Lollapalooza fest in Chicago: “I was sooo hung over by Sunday that I just laid on the grass and listened to her set… I may have fallen asleep” I wasn’t there, but I heard it was hot and that Neko was, um, agitated. I can’t blame her--Lolla can be brutal. 

This was Neko Case’s first visit to our little twin cities and we’re glad she made the trip. In my estimation it was one of the—if not the— most anticipated fall shows this year. More of my friends and colleagues gushed about how much they were looking forward to this show than any other in memory and it was so crowded at Canopy near-capacity venue that I managed to not run into any of them, but still saw several other people I knew.

Ontario’s Sarah Harmer opened the show and, as you can read in one of our local online rags, she’s a gem. Great songwriting with vivid lyrics and haunting melodies—a great choice for a warm-up act. I was warmed and will be warmed again once I get my hands on her several releases.

Neko came out with her band and enchanted the socks pants (as I think would be her word-choice) off of the whole room. She was not agitated in the least in the cool cave of the Canopy and from the first notes of her opening song, “Things that Scare Me” (from Blacklisted, 2002), Neko Case and her band drenched us in her trademark reverby vox and played one of the cleanest (by which I mean, pristine, perfect, unfettered, porcelain-like) sets I’ve ever heard. These folks are pros and it shows (more on this in a moment). But surely, it was a thing of beauty.

The set drew heavily from her two most recent releases, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and this year’sMiddle Cyclone, and featured a full-blown video projection with animations and visuals suited to each song. We got to actually see killer whales and elephants on “People Got a Lotta Nerve” and the roving tornado in “This Tornado Loves You”—not that I ever really wanted to take my eyes off Neko. I mean, common, right?

As I listened to the set, a few things occurred to me. The first was that unlike the New Pornographers, Neko’s solo work isn’t really pop. The songs don’t really have big pop hooks; the band doesn’t just crunch along in three-chord cycles. Rather, Paul Rigby and Jon Rauhouse’s guitar, banjo, and pedal-steel work build layers of nuance underneath the soaring vocals and vocal harmonies (thanks here to the lovely Kelly Hogan). Everything blends together into a seamless, pristine whole—it’s really quite a feat considering the material and the, well, liveness of the performance. In fact, a friend and I were talking afterward about how we kind of got the impression that that Neko’s band—Paul and Jon particularly—were holding back a bit. That the musicians on stage, journeymen-all by the looks of them, could have really let loose if given the opportunity. Our initial impression was disappointment… we wished that they would have rather than staying safely on the edge of their full-capacity talent. But later, I reflected that the exercise of constraint on stage might be more of an artistic feat. That these guys could totally rock but stop just short of it is an indication that they know their audience and therefore know that the audience is there to see and hear Neko Case and not necessarily them. Good form, guys.

The highlights of the night for me were the quieter jams—I love the music box melody on “Middle Cyclone” and love even more that they perform with it live. The encore started with “Vengeance Is Sleeping”— a favorite of mine on the new record. On it, Paul Rigby gave us a little peak at that talent I was talking about earlier. Just an acoustic guitar and Neko Case singing “I’m not the man you think I am.” Loved it.

My hat goes off to the Canopy Club and our local organizer Seth Fein who, I believe, is responsible for much of the musical goodness that descends on our town. I saw him running around working at Neko, and I see this guy at every good show that comes through town. He’s usually working hard behind the scenes and only once (at the Sufjan show in September) did I see him sitting still enjoying the show. I ran into him in the lobby before the Iron & Wine show earlier this fall and uttered a few words of thanks. If you’re out there man, let me thank you again for a great year.

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