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The Opposite of Hex

Neko Case, Rams Head Live, Feb. 15

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/23/2005

“This song is by Catherine Irwin,” offered Neko Case, introducing a number in the middle of her almost 90-minute set at Rams Head Live. Wearing a satiny dark green V-neck top and a sharp pair of charcoal gray power-suit trousers, the spry, auburn-haired dame with the huge voice was in a graciously chatty mood, cracking jokes about the piped-in Bad Company that preceded her set and praising the venue for having the “cleanest fucking bathroom I’ve seen in my life.” She also made frequent, deadpan Valentine’s Day commentary between songs, before moving into her love-gone-very-wrong country magic, smiling as she eased into the former Freakwater goddess’ open-vein “Hex.” “It’s another bring-down,” she said. “She is the queen of the bring-downers.”

Case is a different kind of royalty altogether. She possesses a set of knee-knocking vocal chords that can caress through a Patsy Cline waver or rise into Jeannie C. Reily warmth, perk into crisp naiveté or erupt into a knowingly sensual wail. She uses this dazzling instrument to animate her own old-country tempered songs populated by today’s women. And with opening act the Sadies backing her, Case carved a twisting set of brokenhearted laments and fiery kiss-offs with as many dramatic bends as the Mississippi.

What’s most beguiling is how the Sadies are primarily tone setters for Case’s space. Her country is all hint and suggestion, traces of electric and acoustic guitars and bass intersecting with wire-brush drums and cymbals that alone would sound inconsequential and together sketch moody paintings, stark landscapes that spotlight Case’s voice by default. And she exploits that focus with acrobatic intensity and a subtle grace.

The set stuck primarily songs off her recent live album The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti)—such as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s bucolic “Soulful Shade of Blue,” an ecstatic interpretation of the traditional “This Little Light,” Loretta Lynn’s foot-stomping “Rated X,” and the eerie title track. Case recruited the spark-plug moxie of opener Visqueen’s singer/guitarist Rachel Flotard for Brill Building workhorses Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “Train From Kansas City”—a song Case adorably dubbed a “bitchy girl song.” And she levitated her own material as well, nailing her stunning “Favorite”—a 4 a.m. post-breakup catharsis that slumps along at an entire-bottle-of-bourbon pace, in which Case pushes her voice so high before the chorus that the only thing it, and the song, can do is crash down.

Diversions from Tigers arrived as welcome peaks of new songs or as unexpected gifts, such as the dynamite pre-encore cover of the Band’s “Evangeline.” The evening belonged to Case the saucy minx, though, whose cheerily gimlet-eyed view of romance made even her saddest songs sparkle like rubies and brighten the room. “This is a song just in time for Valentine’s Day, a day too late,” she drolly offered before starting up the devastating “Furnace Room Lullaby.” “It’s about killing your date.”

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