Neko Case @ Red Butte 09.16 with Pickwick

Posted September 18, 2013 in
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Shortly after I arrived at the closing night of the Red Butte Concert series, the audience members who had come early were drizzled with the sunny, honey-glow that only appears in mid-September and spreads itself into the end of October. It was warm, but with a slightly cool breeze. Beautiful.

At seven o’clock on the dot, Seattle-based soul-rockers Pickwick walked onto the stage. Lit by the evening glow, they waved at a fairly quiet audience. Organ sounds like that of an old soap opera grew louder as the band drummed into the bluesy “Brother Roland.” Singer Galen Disston belted out crystal clear refrains reminiscent of Dan Auerbach with a touch of Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids to get the crowd nice and warm. The band had a little bit of blues, a little bit of rock, and a whole lot of soul right off the bat—even artists like Sam Cooke came to mind as the band traveled through their set. There was a touch of gospel, a touch of funk, some thundering tribal drums, groovy keys and even a mention of the latest episode of Breaking Bad (seriously, people, can we not talk about new episodes before I’ve seen them?).

The band warmed the audience well, but a few songs seemed a bit flamboyant and energetic for the largely middle-aged crowd. Songs like the “The Round” really showcased the talent of the vocalist while the band’s funky notes made me want to pimp-slap someone on a dingy street. “Halls of Columbia” was the best of the set and had some great rhythmic piano work and a catchy melody.

The band thanked the audience and vacated the stage, leaving an empty blue light as the sun grew lower and an orange glow stole over the landscape.

The venue was still dimly lit as the sun sank and the moon began to rise. Several dark figures formed a line in the shadows beyond the stage before spreading out and nestling into their instruments. The perky, smiling Neko Case stood at the helm.

“Good morning,” she said to the audience, prompting laughs from the crowd. She noted the light chill in the air before zipping up her jacket, cracked a few jokes with her backup singer, and smiled as she hummed and sang to herself before the first song.

Noises like that of a dim, claustrophobic sonar signal in a submarine crept from the speakers and grew louder. “A chill ran through me,” sang Case slowly as they sauntered into the poignantly selected “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” from the recently released The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. The song that sounded clear and warm through the amps and Case nailed her soft vocal parts, cutting through the nightfall breeze.

The most interesting thing about the show wasn’t the performance of the songs themselves, it was the vibrant personality of Neko Case and the playful dynamic between her and her backup singer. Case is very genuine and was clearly happy to be where she was. She has an excellent stage presence, but it’s not because she’s energetic or because she dances around wildly. It’s because she’s charming and witty. She had interesting chats between songs with her backup vocalist, Kelly Hogan, about how spooky the night was. The two even crafted an interesting tale about the guitar Case was playing, claiming it had been forged on the top of the mountain behind us and was made of “swan wood.” The “spooky” theme would continue through the night as the two discussed everything from Led Zeppelin’s tarot cards to The Fates (who evidently cursed us all with pollen for our “breathe-holes”).

Somehow I imagined that Neko Case would be wearing a fancy dress and perfectly sorted hair as though she were heading to a grand ball, but no. Her hair was a wild, frizzy mess and she was clad a very nondescript jacket and pants. There was no flash to her garb, and even her stage set was sparse, consisting only of the house lights, the instruments, and the rag-tag crew who played them.

The group played fairly simple songs that were lean and excellent and left out any unnecessary spectacle, which seems to be the way most of Case’s songs are crafted. Each one comes on strong and finishes fairly quickly, leaving listeners no time to be anything but captivated. Each song gets straight to the essence of the ideas and emotions embedded inside, sparing no time for gratuitous instrumental bits or showy musicianship, though no member of the band was in any way lacking chops.

In fact, the band themselves were definitely secondary to Case’s vocal performance. Though they played tightly and everything sounded great, Case was really the shining star, displaying rich, sultry vocal performances that really stood out on “Maybe Sparrow,” “Wish I Was the Moon,” and the powerful and moving, “Deep Red Bells.”

Other highlights were “Ragtime,” which had some nice palm-muted guitars that chunked along and built to an enchanting, powerful pinnacle, “Bracing for Sunday,” which really exhibited the strengths of the band and especially the backup singer, whose harmonies with Case were spot on. “That Teenage Feeling” had some great banjo licks and really woke that innocent, bright-eyed feeling you only get for a few of those teenage years. “Man” was much more spirited than the recording and got at least a few crowd members up out of the grass and moving.

Following the first set, Case thanked the audience and disappeared with the band in the dark. After a moment she returned to play an encore of some of the best songs of the night including a passionate rendition of “Andy,” before the band bowed and left the stage for good.

“Summer is Over,” Case had sung as the night grew its coldest, warning us that the warmest of days are behind us. In many ways, the final concert of the Red Butte Concert Series did indeed harken the end of summer. The air is steadily cooling and the outdoor venues are steadily closing. The Twilight series has ended and USANA Amphitheater will close its doors for the season on Friday. I can’t think of a better way to welcome the sweet autumn air than with Neko Case.
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