Concert review

Neko Case sings luminous tales of sadness and loss at sold-out Lawrence show

Updated: 2013-10-17T02:47:39Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

Liberty Hall was sold-out Tuesday night, wall-to-wall, floor-to-rafters. About 1,100 fans filled the theater in downtown Lawrence to see Neko Case and her formidable band deliver nearly two hours of lustrous, spellbinding blues.

Case is touring on her latest recording, “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You,” a collection of ballads and midtempo anthems about death, loss and depression. There were outbursts of energy, as in during “Man” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” but mostly this was a show that required contemplation and close attention. And for the most part, the crowd was up to the task, especially during the sad a cappella hymn “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” one of four encores that ended the night.

Backed by a band that included her longtime backup singer and comic sidekick, Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse and guitarist Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf), she opened her set with “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” a stark lament about someone who has lost connection with herself and the world around her. She followed that with “This Tornado Loves You,” a more uptempo track from her previous album, “Middle Cyclone,” now more than four years old.

Case has evolved dramatically as a songwriter and, thus, a singer. Early on in her career, she was cast as a maverick with a classic-country voice writing . But over the past decade, she has composed songs that blend styles and elude genre classification. They tend to be cinematic and ornate, shifty and quirky at times and filled with spaces and places for Case to exhibit one of the more evocative and rapturous voices in the business, one she showed off all night.

She would perform more than half of the new record and visit a few of its predecessors. She went back to her breakthrough album “Furnace Room Lullaby” just once, delivering a lush, deep-blue rendition of “Set Out Running,” another song about heartache and loss. That dovetailed nicely with the next song, “The Pharoahs,” a lovely twilit ballad from “Cyclone.”

Shows like this one, in which the themes are dark and the tempos and moods don’t shift dramatically, can test a crowd’s attention span. That wasn’t the case this evening, at least not where I was standing on the packed floor (way in back, close to the merch table). Case and Hogan kept the air light between songs, indulging in comic banter. On a night when the sound could have been cleaner, much of that chit-chat was hard to understand from where I was, but it sure amused a lot of other people in the room. It helped lighten the mood after songs like “Wild Creatures,” a dissonant song that addresses the death of her mother. Hogan’s harmonies were stellar all night, but especially on that one.

The first set ended with two from “The Worse”: “Night Still Comes,” another heavy lament about wrestling with the deep blues, then “Man,” a rollicking anthem about strength and defiance in spirit. They would return for four encores, including “Honolulu,” a tale about childhood and wounded psyches that brought the room to a hush. It also included “I Wish I Was the Moon,” one of the loveliest songs Case has ever recorded. The peals of Rauhouse’s pedal steel guitar and Hogan’s harmonies deepened its lament. But, as it did all night, Case’s luminescent voice softened its sadness and regret.

Set list

Where Did I Leave That Fire; This Tornado Loves You; Bracing For Sunday; Lion’s Jaws; People Got A Lotta Nerve; That Teenage Feeling; Set Out Running; The Pharoahs; City Swans; Maybe Sparrow; Red Tide; Wild Creatures; Calling Cards; Deep Red Bells; Hold On, Hold On; Night Still Comes; Man. Encore: Nearly Midnight, Honolulu; Local Girl; Ragtime; I Wish I Was the Moon; Margaret vs. Pauline.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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