I guarantee no one who was at Neko Case's sold out Barrymore show on Monday night will agree with me, but I thought it was sort of boring. All sorts of superlatives were being spouted as people made their way to the door after her 90-minute set. "Amazing." "Fantastic." "I think I died." It left me wondering what it was I didn't get.
She's undeniably attractive, even while seeming not to care about her appearance at all. She was wearing a boxy shirt that required she explain almost immediately that she wasn't pregnant, and her trademark flaming red hair looked as if maybe it hadn't seen a brush yet today. Her easy, luminous beauty and gorgeous voice would be enviable if her sassy manner wasn't so immediately likeable.
I guess the problem is the songs.
I love her with the New Pornographers. The terrific pop songs that Carl Newman gives her to sing are among the best on their three discs, but the songs she writes seem to be no more than two-minute monologues.
For example, "Margaret vs. Pauline" started interestingly enough, but I was already thinking about other things by the time the powerful final line "One girl left her sweater sittin' on a train/ The other lost three fingers at the cannery" came around.
It probably isn't a surprise then that my favorite songs of the night were covers. Her version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" (a calculated attempt to win me over) was undeniably as good as the original. While the Everly Brothers' joyful "Bowling Green" saw the terrific Kelly Hogan, who had been doing backing vocals all night, finally get equal voice. Both of those, as well as the best of her originals, "I Wish I Was the Moon," fell in the far more energetic second half of the set.
Hogan was also the fifth member of the Jon Rauhouse Quintet, which opened the show and then served as Case's backing band. In contrast to his serious skill on banjo and pedal and lap steel guitar, Rauhouse was hilariously self-deprecating (and just plain hilarious) throughout. Introducing the second song that he and delightful guitarist Tommy Connell played as a duo, he commented, "Here's another weird one. Well, they're all weird to me."
His brand new record Steel Guitar Heart Attack, like his previous two recordings, features a collection of old cowboy songs, traditionals and the occasional TV theme song. "They don't write 'em like that anymore," he commented following "Idaho," a song from the 30's on which he and Connell shared vocals, "because they won't let you."
While I certainly enjoyed the pair's gruff vocals, Hogan's take on the Johnny Mercer classic "Accentuate the Positive" was absolutely transcendent, even if she wasn't quite prepared to do it. She came running on stage shoeless, dressed all in brown, and explained that she "had just gotten off work at UPS." Even though she lost me with the majority of her stage banter (something to do with she and Case conceiving puppies), I thought she stole the show from Case.
Don't worry, I don't expect anyone to agree with me.