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Charming Chanteuse

Neko Case Displays Brains, Brawn, and Balladry

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Victoria Renard
NEKO CASE Eye of the Tigers.
Neko Case w/the Sadies
Sat Nov 27, 7 pm, Sun Nov 28, 9 pm, Neumo's, $15 adv./$17 DOS.

Got a friend who claims they don't like country music? If they don't change their tune after hearing The Tigers Have Spoken, the new live CD (on Anti) by Neko Case, drop 'em like a hot rock. This superlative 11-song set teems with gutsy, high-spirited singing (including backing vocals by Case's equally accomplished colleagues Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark), and twangy accompaniment courtesy of Canadian surf-rock cut-ups the Sadies. Whether she's throwing down a bitchy girl-group homage ("If You Knew") or laying into a plaintive ballad ("Favorite"), Case marries the raucous energy of punk to the type of sterling musicianship--to say nothing of smart-ass humor and savvy song selection--one traditionally associates with the heyday of Nashville mavericks like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.

Conversation with Case is just as lively, and diverse, as her fourth solo full-length. When I get her on the line, she's almost beside herself with excitement, having just concluded yakking with a writer from Guitar Player magazine. "It was so nerdy, it was awesome!" she gushes. "It's my fantasy come true!"

During the promotional rounds for 2002's Blacklisted, Case confided to me, "You have no idea how badly I want to be in gear magazines." Soon after, Acoustic Guitar cited her in an article on tenor guitarists. "That was a highlight of my life," she admits today. "I almost peed myself."

The former Seattle resident hopes to shatter the misconception that publications like Modern Drummer are strictly boys-only clubs; playing an instrument--or multiple instruments (Case started as a drummer)--simply isn't that big of a deal. "They have to make [playing guitars] some kind of myth, so that people like Nuno Bettencourt seem interesting," she observes. That an editor would bypass another scintillating item on Slipknot to devote column inches to a female artist, particularly one from the margins of popular music, is enough to get Case fired up.

"The opportunity to be a woman, and have someone actually talk to you about what you do, is so fucking infrequent, that we just piss ourselves like children when it happens," she adds.

I haven't even gotten to my first question, and Case is already beside herself with laughter. Sputtering back into professional mode I ask, "How the hell are you?" "I'm good," she says, still laughing. "Apparently I'm an idiot."

Hardly. One of the joys of interviewing Miss Neko is how quickly her brain works. Over the course of 20 minutes, she touches on her love-hate relationship with Michael Moore, Canadian Thanksgiving, women's reproductive rights, and the eloquence of primatologist Jane Goodall. Whew. No wonder she was one of the presenters at the ideaCity conference in Toronto last summer.

"They invite all these different geniuses from around the world to come: physicists and ethno-biologists, cello players from the London Symphony, and filmmakers and inventors," she explains. "And then they invited me, which made no sense. I had to figure out how to go up there and not look like a complete buffoon."

Case went on after author, photographer, and explorer Wade Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow). Since most presentations weren't participation-oriented, she decided to encourage audience involvement, and recruited the 300-strong crowd to sing along with her on the standard "Wayfaring Stranger." "I didn't know if they would or not. I was really scared, because it was an experiment. But they did it! They all sang along. I almost cried."

Wisely, she caught the results on tape, and tacked them on as the penultimate selection on Tigers. (The final cut is a bit of stage banter, a modest proposal on dealing with human overpopulation and endangered tigers--by feeding babies to the big cats.) Self-deprecation aside, this is just once instance of the careful planning Case put into plotting and recording the 11-song live disc. "I am a perfectionist and a control freak," she admits. "I am a Virgo. That's all you have to say."

Perfectionism and recording live don't exactly go hand in hand, as Neko discovered. "I also wanted to make a live album because I thought it would be a much easier recording process than the studio," she says. "Boy, was I ever wrong. I learned so many things that I never, ever realized... like most live records are faked. The singing is overdubbed later. Which just seems like cheating." But if the Staple Singers could lay down their parts for The Last Waltz without artificial sweetener, Neko believed she should be capable of doing the same. "I felt high and mighty, 'We're not going to overdub anything.'"

"I wanted [the record] to be what actually happens in front of an audience," she adds. "Nothing digitally enhanced." So the body of The Tigers Have Spoken, captured at seven shows in three different venues, is just that, warts and all. "There are some bad notes, crazy compression swells, and weird shades," admits the singer, "but I love it."

Adding to her challenges, Case eschewed recording during a scheduled trek. Instead, she worked backwards, rehearsing specifically to mount shows that would yield a live album (as opposed to simply recording concerts for an audio souvenir cum quick cash-in). Nor did she want Tigers to be an ersatz Greatest Hits. In fact, she'd only sung a few of these tunes before practices began. While gearing up to make the album, she and the Sadies penned two originals specifically for the disc, "If You Knew" and the title tune. She also tossed in several cool covers, like "Soulful Shade of Blue" by Buffy Saint-Marie and the Shangri-Las' "Train from Kansas City."

Of course, the upshot is that now she's touring in support of an album that she and her cohorts have already rehearsed and road-tested. Which hopefully means we can expect even more on-stage antics than usual from this charismatic performer. Who knows, maybe soon she'll graduate from write-ups in gear rags to concert reviews in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. God help them if they try to pigeonhole precisely what it is that makes Neko Case so special. But here's a hint, guys: Write about what she plays, not how she looks. And if she asks you to sing along, don't argue.

kurt@thestranger.com

 

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