Feel like I’m being spoiled now. I seem to have been griping for months about shoddy sound mixing at gigs and how not being able to pick out the vocals can leave your evening irrevocably marred (or Marred, even) and now, less than a week after John Grant’s brilliant show at The Junction demonstrated the value of actually being able to hear the words, here’s Neko Case doing a rare UK show to further restore my faith in the power of the popular song. Case trades mainly in country music, or country-rock, or possibly alt-country (I don’t really understand what the differences are between these, and I suspect she’s not bothered either) and has been putting out albums loaded with wonderful songs about disappointment and longing and redemption and the importance of the natural world for a good few years now, all set to sympathetic and finely tuned arrangements and sung with wild, but never self-indulgent, abandon. After John Grant, that’s two amazing vocalists in a row.
Actually… make that three in a row. Case’s support is an act called Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, which turns out to be 23 year old Maine resident Aly Spaltro playing solo. She comes out on stage with zero fanfare, dressed down in a denim jacket and having something of the look of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games or Winter’s Bone about her, picks up an electric guitar and then with no introduction launches into an extraordinary, densely complex, acapella ballad…no, not a ballad, more of a spiritual…with a passion and intensity that the whole room is silenced. It’s a showstopper and the show’s only just started. She follows it immediately with another one, this time accompanied by her own fierce but highly accomplished playing and this time it feels less like a song than a suite, with changes in tempo and mood rife. Spaltro seems to be laying herself bare in these songs with all five of the songs she plays displaying a heightened emotional pitch and ambitious, unconventional structures but she’s more than up to the task of keeping the audience’s attention through the power of her voice and conviction alone. She’s really impressive and well worth seeking out (you can listen to one of her songs here).
Neko Case, when she takes the stage after the interval, is by contrast positively relaxed. She’s dressed uber-casually in hoodie and jeans with no make-up or jewellery apparent, less like a rockstar than someone about to walk the dog, and straight away starts making jokes about zits. Her band consists of four pleasingly grizzled looking men of indefinite age who between them have thoughtfully managed to represent the four main stages of beard growth, plus backing vocalist and all-purpose sidekick Kelly Hogan, with whom Neko spends much of the between-song tuning-up and swapping instrument time swapping jokes about the menopause and how remembering being at a gig might one day replace just filming it on a mobile phone. All of this rambliness is excused once they start playing, and particularly once Neko starts singing – she’s absolutely spellbinding, throwing her head back and giving full throat to a well chosen set of songs. We get a healthy chunk of the two most recent albums Middle Cyclone and the classic Fox Confessor, as well as one or two earlier tracks, a couple of covers of songs by Catherine Irwin and Willie Nelson, and intriguingly a few songs from her not yet released new record, which sound well up to par and possibly slightly more rock than country (they end the main set with one of these newies, which features a lovely Beatle-y descending chord sequence). Amongst all the other instruments on stage – a banjo, a double bass, a pedal steel, an organ, lots of acoustic guitars – there’s a curious affair that Neko plays from time to time which I’d like to think is an electric ukulele complete with tremolo arm but is probably just a four string guitar. Whatever it is, it sounds just fine, as does the band – every song seems clear and fresh and briskly put over, with no horrible rock’n’roll grandstanding anywhere in evidence. Favourite moments for me were probably the ballads, the heartbreaking Margaret vs. Pauline and the yearning I Wish I Was The Moon, but I don’t think anyone could have been disappointed with the setlist. It’s a highly appreciative crowd, and the hall is coated with good cheer by the time the band signs off with a punchy Train From Kansas City. A treat for the ears – country is the new rock’n’roll.