Review and Photos by Tony BonyataLast Thursday evening a lilting songbird descended in Milwaukee. And her name was Neko Case.
Case, raised primarily in the state of Washington who now calls The Windy City her home, has certainly been around the block. She's played in a wide melange of bands varying in contrasting styles, such as punk (Maow), pop (The New Pornographers) and old-time country (The Corn Sisters), before settling into what seems to best suit her - alternative country.
Dressed solely in black with long flaming locks of auburn-orange hair and attractive girl-next-door looks, Case ran through a mesmerizing set for an intimate gathering at the Miramar Theatre that proved why such a buzz surrounds her in the world of alt-country music today.
With a casual, laid-back attitude, Case ran through a setlist that briefly touched on her two previous albums, the more traditional country-flavored The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullabye, while the bulk of the evening focused more on the stunning material from her latest release Blacklisted on Bloodshot Records.
Backed by the sparse but harrowing accompaniments of steel guitarist/banjoist Jon Rauhouse and upright bassist Tom V. Ray, Case's captivating voice beckoned at the tomb of Patsy Cline on a subdued, yet creepy take of "Look For Me (I'll Be Around)," while numbers such as the bleak despair of "Blacklisted," which was haunted by Rauhouse's mournful, wailing steel guitar, along with the banjo-fueled song "Ghost Wiring," gave even further depth to the album versions. The trio then proceeded to turn a heartfelt version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets Of Rain" into a bluesy lullabye.
Case, who only began playing guitar recently, nonetheless, traded off between acoustic and electric effortlessly throughout her performance. And despite that fact that her rhythm guitar playing was in fine form, it was her voice - that Voice - that burned through the night like a white-hot branding iron. When her lips parted, out flowed a world of weary souls and broken hearts that clung tightly to a lost sense of hope. Conjuring up angels and darkness within the same breath, this diminutive singer, along with a songbook full of deep, dark compositions under her arm, could quite possibly be the most talented singer/songwriter in music today.
Opening for Case were the two engaging acts, Jim & Jennie & The Pinetops - a rousing old-time bluegrass outfit, and John Doe - the one-time leader from the pioneering L.A. punk band X. Where Jim & Jennie provided a fiery set that burned bright with banjo, guitar, mandolin and passionate pipes, Doe offered up a stripped down set of earthy, Americana-influenced songs from his latest album Dim Stars, Bright Sky, as well as slipping in a rich cover of Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," which contrasted beautifully from his earlier punk work. As the different acts worked with one another throughout the evening (John Doe performing a country-fried version of X's "Call of the Wrecking Ball" with Jim & Jennie, Neko joining Doe's set and finally all the acts finishing out the evening with a heavenly hoedown) a communal feeling of love was not only spread throughout the different musicians but to the audience as well.
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