There’s just something fantastic seeing the words “Sold Out” on a marquee, and there’s something equally fantastic about seeing the name “Neko Case” there. Last night at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, you could see both.
Laughing at the big crowd, opener Thao Nguyen (known for her band the Get Down, Stay Down) began the night, saying “You’re kind of rowdy. It’s only 7.” Proficient on all stringed instruments, Thao was a one-woman jam band, turning in an engaging performance all by herself. She lent her bubbly riffing and sunny voice to “Fear and Convenience,” and, in addition to guitar, played a spacey mandolin as well as pedal steel on a couple of tracks. Her onstage movements were oddly reminiscent of Les Claypool, hunched over and sneaking up on her songs.
After performing “Swimming Pools,” Thao gave some love to the concert’s sponsor, the Current (“the nicest studio in the United States”). She lost herself in the foot stomping, hair shaking music, pausing to mention that she was sad that she missed the Minnesota State Fair, and to relay an extended story about her love of… corn?
“Guts” was a favorite of the Palace crowd, and with her unique finger-picking it slightly resembled Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Ten tracks, successful communion with a big crowd, then Thao Nguyen blew us a kiss and was out.
Neko Case and her six bandmates took their places in front of what appeared to be five huge beehives and began with “Pitch or Honey,” this year’s Hell-On (which we reviewed here), its percolating, spacey beginning giving way to a charging tempo change. Sticking with Case’s latest album, the band filled the Palace with the rock steady, expansive “Last Lion of Albion” before moving on to a gorgeous version of 2002’s “Deep Red Bells.” Case’s soaring, crystalline vocals erupted like a honey volcano. With no pretense or trickery, she made believers out of everyone.
“I think this is being broadcast,” Case said, informing the audience that the show was part of a live webcast on the Current; like Thao before her, she heaped praise on our gem of a public radio service.
Each song felt like a ghostly opera, an aria or requiem to loss funneled through Americana, country, and rock and roll. Sprinkled throughout there were almost Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac jams, and effortlessly cool synchronized tambourine hits.
The one thing Case seemed to struggle with was her language. “If I am not as chatty as normal,” she let the crowd know, “I’m not supposed to swear, and it is hard!”
“Bad Luck” was an unfiltered rock and roll moment, a perfect windows-down late summer moment inside the dark, windowless theatre. Case then tested the Current’s language censors with “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” which contains the powerfully, wonderfully obscene lyric “I fucked every man that I wanted to be.”
Sticking with Hell-On music, the band worked through the opening hits “Oracle of the Maritime” before expertly snapping together in dramatic fashion. Case then started 2004’s “Hex,” but quickly abandoned it. She told the audience that she would come back to it (she didn't), then launched into a funny mini-tirade, conceivably about being live cast online: “I feel like a dick. I’ve got a dress on. I’ve got make up on. I’m a diiiiiick.”
After testing the no-swearing rule, Case returned again to Hell-On with “Halls of Sarah,” a dirty electric guitar in the background helping build the song to its full rock and roll potential. Then Case and band performed the hushed, noir-ish “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” from 2002’s Blacklisted. Ethereal, barely there, and utterly spectral, it was pitch black swing.
Case began to finish her main set with “Hold On, Hold On,” a song from 2008’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood that’s slightly reminiscent of Tom Petty, and steamrolled their way to completion with 2013’s “Man.” They played it like Oscar Wilde on a water slide, or as Patsy Cline riding in Evel Knievel’s sidecar as it jumps the Grand Canyon. In a word, they rocked it hard. (OK, in four words.)
The encore opened with Hell-On’s title track, which Case played creepy crawly with an almost Tom Waits cadence. The beehive props, creatively lit throughout the show, took on a Pink Floyd turn, becoming central to the emotion of the music. The extended encore also included a raucous “Loretta” played at full punky-tonk speed.
Before the very last number, Case let the crowd know, “I love the Midwest so much.” Then, referencing Thao, Case reveled in the sheer number of women guitarists on stage for the evening—four, including Case.
“Let’s not take rock for granted,” she said. “Or who plays it.”
With that, the show ended with a joyous rendition of 2013’s “Ragtime,” and it was off into the night for the audience, all ghosts busted, every emotional gas tank topped off.
Pitch or Honey
Last Lion of Albion
Deep Red Bells
Margaret Vs. Pauline
Curse of the I-5 Corridor
Halls of Sarah
Look for Me (I’ll be Around)
Hold On, Hold On
This Tornado Loves You
The crowd A packed house of folks lamenting summer’s end, or welcoming autumn’s arrival in their sartorial choices.
Overheard in the crowd: “Guarding your spot is a full-time job.”
Random notebook dump: Despite the “strict no camera policy," there was a guy taking video on his phone.