Neko Case, City Recital Hall

January 12, 2009

Oh Lord how l love the rich, velvet tones of Neko Case’s gutsy soprano voice. She is a singer’s singer, as effortless on those crisp clean top notes as she is deep down in the bottom of her range. It’s a femme fatale of a voice, perfect for Country Noir – strong and expressive and seductive but with just a hint of sweetness. Case is in town as part of the Sydney Festival, a sprawling showcase of some of the best arts and culture experiences happening across the globe. The festival is famed for bringing great musical talent to the city and putting them in venues that aren’t typically used as performance spaces, and that is perhaps where the problem lies with this show. Case hates the venue. And because it’s her second show, most of the audience already know there’s a problem with the space because a pretty disappointing review of last night’s performance has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald .

I wasn’t at the fateful first gig so I can’t say if I agree with Herald reviewer Bernard Zuel’s sentiments or not. But what I can say is that the City Recital Hall is a pretty lame place to watch a rock show. It’s a well-lit room with tiered seating and polished surfaces and white wine served in tiny plastic cups. As someone who prefers guzzling beer in venues where I can feel my feet sticking to the floor, I can empathise with Case, who belongs in dimly lit bars with squelching gin soaked carpet and not on a stage designed for string quartets and chamber orchestras.

But… the show must go on…

Neko and her band bring a humble and endearing presence to a stage that they are clearly uncomfortable on. There is a gorgeous camaraderie between Case, who barely talks between songs, and her bawdy backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Hogan is unafraid to joke with the audience and with the band, and of course, effortlessly provides that rich haunting echo that makes the harmony hit you were it hurts. Most of the set list is made up of the most recent record Middle Cyclone, with highlights including ‘This Tornado Loves You’ and the tender, mournful ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’. In jeans and sneakers, Case’s casual stage presence is juxtaposed with the glamorous melodrama in every drawn out note and by the time the band breaks into ‘That Teenage Feeling’ from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, I’ve been well and truly wooed. But somewhat foolishly, I am lulled into a false sense that the rest of the audience is swooning too… until this happens…

Idiot lady in the audience: Can you turn the amps off?

My internal monologue: Hey rude festival twat, don’t ruin the vibe with your rude interjections and clear lack of knowledge about the artist, her back catalogue and the finer points of Country Noir (i.e. the necessary use of an amp!)

Rest of the audience: silence, collective sip of alcoholic beverage, more silence.

Neko Case: What a fucking stupid question. This is a rock show. Can you go and sit in the toilet? You might enjoy the show a whole lot more from there.

It’s hard to say what happens to the gig from here, except that it is tense. Case has defended her right to play her songs the way she always has, to someone who clearly hasn’t listened to any of her albums and is probably there on a sponsor affiliated freebie ticket. The overwhelming feeling in my section of the audience (i.e. diehard country fans in the back row of the second tier) is one of embarrassment and hope that the show can go on.

Indeed it does, and Case’s full, sad melodies echo across the hated hall and the hater(s) in the audience. I soak it up, grateful just to hear one of the finest voices of her generation live in my city. But I can’t help but sit there hoping that next time Case comes to town, if she braves our fair city again, we’re in a seedy, dark venue with seedy, dark patrons to listen to seedy, dark music without festival types doing their best to make it seem as though beautiful music is falling on deaf ears.

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