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Longer Review of the 12 May 2011 Neko Case Show at Bearsville Theatre

Even though the show is sold out, there is enough floor space in the live room at the Bearsville Theatre to accommodate the vigorous swaying of certain audience members.  This swaying seems to be one effect of Neko Case and her band’s set tonight.  Here’s another: because it’s a barn, there’s a lot of open space overhead, and sometimes when Case holds out a note, the sinewy strands of her voice somehow seem to inflate the air between the joists and beams, expanding that space beyond its physical dimensions.

The sound is brilliantly assembled; it seems like this is not only a good way, but the only way to blend country, gospel, and indie rock.  The way that the songs—populated with double-bass, banjo, acoustic guitars, Case’s tenor guitars, Kelly Hogan’s Emmylou Harris-esque harmonies—are so manifestly country, yet suddenly surprise us with a time-signature change or a starkly dissonant chord, seems to satisfy simultaneously every subconscious urge of today’s listener of popular indie rock. That it all seems to come together so naturally, so convincingly genuine, only amplifies the effect.

This show was supposed to happen in February, but was cancelled due to a snowstorm, and even though the band sounds, on the whole, warm, they nonetheless convey a wintery shiver.  Jon Rauhouse, looking like a college English professor,—boldly bearded, wild-haired, wearing a suit of earth tones—eyes his pedal-steel intently, as if performing a close reading on a Modernist poem in a December library.  The bassist, Tom V. Ray, whose dirty jokes and hand motions, according to on-stage banter, are historic and well-loved, also wears a beard, its long white length like a string of melting icicles across a gutter of chin.  At one point in the set, Neko jokes about how the Bearsville Theatre is home of the sweat-mustache, and continues into a nature-filmesque voice-over narration on how the wicking properties of the bearded men’s beards are an evolutionary measure that quells their outrageous desires to mate while on tour.  Obviously, this is hilarious, and aids in the overall feeling of intimacy at the Bearsville Theatre and honest fun among the band, the feeling that there is little separation between performer and audience, or between the forgotten February blizzard and this new warmth of May. Here, they coexist; we coexist. This show is not impersonal, to say the least. 

As the chorus breaks in “Star Witness,” the swerving breezes of the pedal-steel so complement the ladies’ inimitable harmonies that the entire band suddenly dons a fresh icy sheen of brilliance. The room is visibly stricken. The crowd leans back as one (with ample space) and marvels. This happens again during “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” at the combination of Paul Rigby’s finger-picking and Case’s searing vocal. This kind of collective awe is one of the reasons Americans dish out so much cash per year for live concerts, so to see it happen here vindicates all who calculate the relationship between hours spent at work and ticket costs ($15/hour, $50 ticket, roughly 3 1/3 hours of labor, before taxes).  The collective-awe thing is basically priceless, but if sold in a jar or through an online distributor, a fair price tag would be beyond the reach of most. 

Throughout the night the songs are so short, it sometimes feels like a Bob Pollard set, which is good—it keeps things moving and basically denies the lag that can sometimes plague a band’s set ¾ through.  The set altogether is well-paced, brevity keeping the occasional series of slow songs in check, and the well-timed upbeat pick-me-up almost predictable, coming exactly when needed.  Also like Pollard, by the way, is Case’s ability throughout her career to let her own personal approach to singing and songwriting be her guide, which is showcased well here.  Any song could fit on any album, so all songs fit nicely into the live set.  All of her songs sound wholly hers; each of her melodies, in a sense, comes from the same lovely, expansive, expanding place, and the swaying crowd here seems glad that tonight her place is this big stretched-out barn in Bearsville.