BERKELEY, Calif. A powerful vocal performance spiced with self-effacing between-song banter set the tone of the Neko Case and Her Boyfriends gig at the Starry Plough on Tuesday night.
And the crowd who'd lined up in soggy weather to get into the club appeared delighted with the result.
"We're gonna play a lot of songs off our new album," Case announced with a slight laugh after taking the stage. "None of you have it."
By the end of the night, many in the crowd did have it, inspired enough by the performance to purchase a copy of Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot Records) available at the club.
Kicking off its tour in support of the recent release, the band including Bill Andersen (exMeat Purveyors) on guitar, Carl Newman on guitar and harmonies, Joel Trueblood on drums and Tolin McNeal (previously of Untamed Youth) on bass seemed a bit loose around the edges. They kibitzed about which songs, or parts of them, they did or didn't know, and in some spots seemed to be cautiously feeling their way through the material. But the resulting sound was both spontaneous and gorgeous.
Less Makeup, More Intensity
Looking nothing like the lipsticked, dark-haired vamp on her album covers and promotional photos, Case took the stage without fanfare. Brushing her light brown hair back from her face, she waved an awkward hello to the audience before closing her eyes, throwing her head back and launching into "Set Out Running" (RealAudio excerpt) the heartbroken waltz that begins Furnace Room Lullaby.
The voice emanating from this small woman seemed to stun the crowd for a moment, and as the end of the song faded to the near-silence of the monitors' hum, the crowd began screaming and applauding wildly.
Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, with no makeup, Case kept the small crowd rapt for the entire 50-minute set.
"I got goose bumps," said Patrick Larkin, 36, of Berkeley. "This was so much more intense than hearing the albums. Her voice is insane."
With little preening or regrouping between songs, the band played quickly through the winsome "Guided by Wire" (RealAudio excerpt) and the sexy, hormone-fueled romp of "Whip the Blankets."
The music itself was fairly traditional, with countrified songs that seemed to fall largely into two categories in Case's words, either "I'm Gonna Kick Yuhr Ass" or "I Wanna Do It With Yuh." Her arrangements and phrasings were pure country, with many songs played in three-quarter [waltz] time.
Without fail, it's Case's haunting vocals and lyrics that stay with you. Her voice ranges from a gilt-edged falsetto on the plaintive "Porchlight" (RealAudio excerpt) to a bone-chilling rumble on the haunting oldie "Make Your Bed." Such lyrics as "I know you can't swim/ But I'll tuck you in/ Make your bed the river/ Young girl" take a few moments to creep up on you, but creep up they do.
When Case harmonized with Newman on "Mood to Burn Bridges" from Furnace Room and "Bowling Green" from her solo debut, The Virginian, their voices swooped and climbed together without wavering.
Paying Respect To Her Rootsy Roots
Case did a tribute to her hometown of Tacoma, Wash. ("South Tacoma Way"), and gave some props to country legend Loretta Lynn.
"Those of you who don't rate her along with George Jones and Merle Haggard, f--- you! Loretta Lynn's a bad man!" she said, before closing the night with Lynn's "Fist City."
Case has a varied musical background, having played in punkish and No-Depression bands (the Sadies, Maow) over the past 11 years. Yet she was still slightly awkward in the spotlight, seeming to both seek the applause and self-consciously shrug it off. Her between-song banter included stories that she didn't complete, brief song descriptions ("This one's about ... oh, no, never mind"), and repeated pleas to buy the album.
"It's really good!" she enthused, before backtracking a bit. "Well, people are saying it's really good. It's just impossible to find right now. It's a ... uh, distribution thing."
Judging from the number of people lined up after the show to buy the album, Neko Case and Her Boyfriends might not have to worry about the distribution thing for much longer.
Case and her Boyfriends are wending their way through California and the Southwest on their way to the South by Southwest Film and Music Conference in Austin, Texas, then continuing east to New Orleans and north to Atlanta and Nashville before heading back West via Chicago, Minneapolis and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They wrap up the tour in Seattle on April 1.
The Rochester, N.Y., trio the Frantic Flattops opened the show, eventually bringing many to their feet. As the name would indicate, their hairstyles and retro instruments (stand-up bass, hollow-body Gibson) suggested rockabilly, while the band's actual sound veered all over the road from blues to punk to straight rock 'n' roll.
The Flattops offered fun and fast-moving music, and the audience seemed pleasantly surprised. Likewise, the band seemed caught off-guard by the warm response. "We haven't played in Berkeley before," smiled pompadoured frontman Frank Deblase. "Y'all are being so nice!"