Neko Case said she was playing “deep cuts” at her concert Feb. 25 at the Tivoli Theatre, a grand old cinema in suburban Downers Grove. And indeed, Case performed several obscure tracks from her catalog, which is brimming over with so many shining gems of songwriting, singing and instrumental arrangement. The selections at this show even included a couple of songs from Case’s Canadian Amp EP.
Case is touring to support the recent boxed set that colects all of her albums into one deluxe package — Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule — so this felt like an opportunity for her to dig through her repertoire.
She played with her longtime musicians Jon Rauhouse (on guitar and pedal steel) and Tom Ray (on upright bass), along with guitarist Eric Bachmann (the lead singer of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, who has been a member of Case’s touring band for a few years now). And of course, harmony vocalist extraordinaire Kelly Hogan, along with a few appearances by Nora O’Connor. But no drummer — just tambourine shakes and other minimal touches of percussion. That gave the performances a loose, unplugged feeling at times.
Case’s sense of humor was as charming and off-beat as it’s ever been. Indeed, I wondered if any audience members who weren’t accustomed to her stage banter knew what to make of it at times, especially when got amusingly scatological. For my part, it was a confirmation that this is the same delightful eccentric I first saw performing onstage at FitzGerald’s back in 2000.
The concert came to a breathtaking end with the second encore. Case and Hogan walked back out onto the stage and sang the a cappella duet “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” It was nearly ruined by the inappropriate laughter of a few audience members reacting to the vulgarity in the lyrics — the line where Case and Hogan sing, “Get the fuck away from me!” That might seem amusing if you don’t know that the song is about a mother yelling that at her young child. But then the rest of the song silenced the crowd, as Case delivered those beautiful final words directed at the child she’d seen: “But don’t you ever shut up please/Kid, have your say/’Cause I still love you/Even if I don’t see you again.” It was a goose-bumps-raising moment.
SET LIST: Outro With Bees / Hold On, Hold On / Bought and Sold /
Man / Vengeance Is Sleeping / Ghost Wiring / This Tornado Loves You / Look for Me (I’ll Be Around) / Nothing to Remember / Andy / Blacklisted / I’m From Nowhere / Night Still Comes / At Last / City Swans /
Duchess / The Needle Has Landed / Middle Cyclone / Maybe Sparrow
FIRST ENCORE: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood / Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers cover, duet with Eric Bachmann) / Lady Pilot / Margaret vs. Pauline / Knock Loud / SECOND ENCORE: Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Another thing that made this evening special was the opening act, Robbie Fulks. Yes, I have seen Fulks a ton of times — probably more than any other performer — largely because of the shows he’s been playing at the Hideout on most Monday nights for the past six years. So it was nothing novel for me to see him performing yet again. But it was great to hear Fulks playing the songs from his forthcoming album, Upland Stories, with a full band (including Nora O’Connor’s singing on several songs). I’ve heard Fulks’ new records, and it’s one of his best. His singing at the Tivoli Theatre show was especially impressive, showing a wide range from subtle quiet turns of phrase to long, sustained country hollers.
I also saw Fulks signing several of the new songs in a session Monday, Feb. 29, at the Hideout, which was filmed for a video. Later the same night, Fulks performed a fun tribute show to Alex Chilton, playing with Liam Davis, Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd.
These are my favorite records of 2013, the ones I enjoyed the most. Betraying my personal tastes, the list is dominated by alt-country and artists working somewhere around that genre’s vague boundaries. Simply put, a lot of my favorite artists came out with new records in 2013, and a lot of those records were very good. My honorable mentions include quite a few records I wish I could have squeezed into my top 10 — and I wish there’d been enough time to listen more closely to hundreds more.
1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY
This is the quietest Nick Cave has made in a while, but it’s hardly mellow. In this tense and brooding suite of songs, Cave seems to be drifting in and out of dreams and unsettling nightmares, a world-weary traveler whose memories are slipping away. The fleeting images in his phantasmagoria flash with menace and yearning, climaxing in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues.” nickcave.com
2. NEKO CASE
THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT,
THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU
The latest in a succession of masterpieces by one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the past decade and a half. Neko Case has said she drew more on her personal life for her lyrics this time, but the evocative poetry of her songs has always been a bit mysterious, and it remains so. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, too, surrounded here by an alluring variety of musical textures, including sonar blips, jingle bells, trumpets and cellos. Case seems to be creating her own genre, even as her innovative songs echo with the radio signal of classic tunes of the 20th century. nekocase.com
3. ROBBIE FULKS
GONE AWAY BACKWARD
Many of the smart songs on this intimate, acoustic record could have been written in the 1930s, or maybe even the 19th century. With a couple of exceptions, they’re actually new, but this is music with a true old-timey spirit. Renaissance man Robbie Fulks pulls it off with apparent ease, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and obscure country, folk and bluegrass. He knows the old stuff, and how to make it new again. robbiefulks.com
4. BILL CALLAHAN
As the title hints, this album feels like a nocturnal journey that flows with the logic of a dream. (In that way, it has a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Nick Cave record, though the two artists have distinct styles and personalities.) There’s a loose, jazzy vibe, punctuated at almost every turn by a singular guitar fill from Bill Callahan’s remarkable sideman Matt Kinsey. It all reaches shimmering perfection on my favorite song of 2013, “Summer Painter,” which finds Callahan musing on the meaning of work, as he sings about a summer job painting rich people’s boats. Then the story takes a turn toward the apocalyptic, when a hurricane hits and people blame the narrator: “Like all that time spent down by the water/had somehow given me control over the rain.” As peculiar as Callahan’s dreams may be, after a while, they start to seem like your own. dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan
5. MIKAL CRONIN
Like other records of the recent garage-rock explosion, Mikal Cronin’s second album is bursting with exuberance and energy. But it’s also carefully crafted, with a string section adding a touch of grandeur to all of its heartily strummed guitars and pounding drums. The spirit of late ’60s music is alive and well here. One song after another has the sort of melody that makes you want to sing along, thanks in no small part to the vulnerability in Cronin’s voice. mikalcronin.bandcamp.com
6. DAWN McCARTHY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG
Dawn McCarthy has sung haunting harmonies on previous records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka singer-songwriter Will Oldham. On this tribute to the Everly Brothers, they get equal billing. That’s apt, since the combination of these two voices was one of the year’s delights. The album doesn’t include Don and Phil Everly’s biggest hits, but the song list reminds us just how noteworthy that duo was. In the elegant folk-rock renditions on this record, what the brothers sang sounds beautiful and brand new. dragcity.com/artists/dawn-mccarthy-and-bonny-billy
7. DAVID BOWIE
THE NEXT DAY
David Bowie’s new album seemed to come out of nowhere. And it sounds like it came from another time and place — maybe the 1980s, maybe somewhere on Planet Bowie. This artist who’s legendary for his innovations and constantly shifting persona isn’t necessarily trying to invent anything new this time around, but it’s a batch of excellent songs. The dense rock-band-orchestra arrangements deliver one great hook after another with some wallop, but more than anything, it’s terrific to hear Bowie singing again, sounding like classic Bowie. davidbowie.com
8. JASON ISBELL
The former Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist finally came into his own with this masterful album, striking a chord with memorable turns of phrase and the rueful wisdom of a man who’s made mistakes and learned from them. jasonisbell.com
9. MAVIS STAPLES
ONE TRUE VINE
Producer Jeff Tweedy’s clean, simple arrangements bring a warm glow to Mavis Staples’ glorious voice in this stirring set of gospel, soul and folk rock. The first song and the last are modern hymns (one written by Low, another by Tweedy), gracefully restrained prayers to the world. mavisstaples.com
10. DOLLY VARDEN
FOR A WHILE
A family album in musical form, with Steve Dawson’s memories filling each page like tantalizing old snapshots. This is the sound of a songwriter and a band at midlife, contemplating their past, present and future, and transforming it into beguiling ballads. dollyvarden.com
Molly Drake — Molly Drake
Yo La Tengo — Fade
Kelley Stoltz — Double Exposure
Veronica Falls — Waiting for Something to Happen
Laura Mvula — Sing to the Moon
Richard Thompson — Electric
Heavy Times — Fix It Alone
Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
Low — The Invisible Way
Laura Marling — Once I Was an Eagle
Charles Bradley — Victim of Love
Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
Rose Windows — The Sun Dogs
Twin Peaks — Sunken
I Was A King — You Love It Here
Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
The Sadies — Internal Sounds
David Lang — Death Speaks
Laura Veirs — Warp and Weft
Superchunk — I Hate Music
The Cairo Gang — Tiny Rebels
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood — Black Pudding
Cave — Threace
Patty Griffin — American Kid
My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The Handsome Family — Wilderness
The Liminanas — Costa Blanca
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Chelsea Wolfe — Pain Is Beauty
Disappears — Era
Midlake — Antiphon
Thee Oh Sees — Floating Coffin
Various Artists — Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Pelican — Forever Becoming
Rokia Traoré — Beautiful Africa
Black Bug — Reflecting the Light
Kronos Quartet/Bryce Dessner — Aheym
Phosphorescent — Muchacho
Shocked Minds — Shocked Minds
Ensemble Signal — Shelter
Alvin Lucier/Janacek Philarmonic Orchestra — Orchestral Works
Cass McCombs — Big Wheel and Others
Dobrinka Tabakova — String Paths
Frank Rosaly — Cicada Music
Savages — Silence Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Nadia Sirota — Baroque
Jacco Gardner — Cabinet of Curiosities
Foxygen — We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Guided By Voices — English Little League
Mind Spiders — Inhumanistic
Ty Segall — Sleeper
Dumpster Babies — Dumpster Babies
Faun Fables — A Table Forgotten
Almost without fail, the Hideout Block Party is one of the summer’s most entertaining festivals — and that hasn’t changed over the past couple of years, when it combined with the A.V. Club’s A.V. Fest. It feels like a gathering of old friends — in the middle of an concrete-block and corrugated-metal cityscape, with a whiff of trash wafting over from all of the city garbage trucks parked nearby.
The banner on this year’s stage, created by the great Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan, depicted garbage trucks tumbling in midair. And on Friday night, the Streets & Sanitation odors were stronger than usual. As Kelly Hogan wryly noted (during Neko Case’s concert, where she was providing her delightful-as-usual harmony vocals): “That breeze feels great even though it smells like dumpster juice.” The smell was worth putting up with because of all the great music, and thankfully, the wind was blowing in another direction on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the crowd was chatty on Friday night during the sets by Case and Mavis Staples. Wandering around the parking lot, it wasn’t easy to find an area where you could hear the music clearly without being distracted by nearby conversations. As usual, the audience members closest to the stage were the most attentive, and a hush finally fell over most of the crowd when Case daringly performed “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella song from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder IFight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. The song delivers a fairly stunning emotional impact in the studio version, and it was only heightened in the live performance. That was the highlight of the night, but the rest of Case’s set was lovely, too — such a subtle mix of tough and tender. The final song of the night was her 2002 classic “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and she performed the opening verse a cappella (or nearly so) — the same way she did the song during the Solid Sound Fest this summer. And once again, Case’s voice rang out with clarity. See more of my photos from Neko Case’s performance.
Staples’ voice sounded tentative during the first song, her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (from her excellent new album One True Vine), but there was nothing uncertain about her vocals in the rest of the set, as she gave full-throated glory to songs new and old. Closing with the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” she exhorted the audience to sing along, taunting that the crowd’s first attempt at joining in was “weak.” See more of my photos from Mavis Staples’ performance.
Friday also featured the scrappy garage rock of Nude Beach and the acoustic jamming of Trampled by Turtles.
Saturday was a festive day in the garbage-truck parking lot. I just barely missed the opening set by the Guitarkestra (though I heard the roar of its chord in the distance as I walked up to the Hideout). I arrived in time for a fabulous set by Girl Group Chicago — five singer and 15 musicians, if I counted correctly, playing big renditions of classic girl group songs, joined onstage by the dancing gals known as the Revelettes. See more of my photos from Girl Group Chicago’s performance.
It wouldn’t be a Hideout Block Party without a performance by Jon Langford, and for this one, he played with a new lineup of his Skull Orchard band, playing a new song on the timely topic of “endless war” and closing with a cover of the Faces’ “Debris.” He also played “Haunted,” the song he wrote for Kelly Hogan’s album of last year. “The royalty checks are flooding in,” he joked. “They almost match the parking tickets.”
Next up was the Both, a duo comprising Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. They’ve recorded an album together, and their musical styles blended with surprising ease during this set, despite some technical difficulties with the mix during the first couple of songs.
The Walkmen sounded as intense as ever during their late-afternoon set; lead singer Hamilton Leithauser was unrelenting.
It was bittersweet to see Superchunk for the first time without the band’s longtime bass Laura Ballance, which is still recording with the group but has retired from touring. But Jason Narducy did a fine job of handling duties on bass, even getting into Superchunk’s bouncy, jumpy spirit. It seemed like lead singer Mac McCaughan’s feet were a few inches above the stage at just about any given moment during the show, and Superchunk was as lively and exciting as it ever was. New songs, like set opening “FOH,” sounded terrific alongside oldies like “Slack Motherfucker.” And in some comments to the crowd, McCaughan paid tribute to all of the Chicago people and institutions that helped Superchunk over the years, including the Lounge Ax, Steve Albini and Touch and Go Records. See more of my photos from Superchunk’s performance.
As darkness fell, the Hold Steady launched into a loud and raucous set. The fans along the barricade by the stage clearly loved frontman Craig Finn’s shout-singing and wild gestures. Since keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, its sound has been all guitars, all the time. The nonstop riffing in the first half of the set was a bit much, but when the Hold Steady dug into its back catalog for some of its catchiest choruses at the end, all was well in Hideoutville.
Saturday’s headliner was Young the Giant. Who? … OK, I had heard of this group, but I’ve just barely heard its music. And I knew plenty of other people who turned out to see Superchunk or the Hold Steady and who were largely unfamiliar with Young the Giant. Judging from the people who crowded near the stage at the end of the night, most of Young the Giant’s fans are in their late teens or early 20s. And well … to my ears, Young the Giant’s music was rather bland and generic pop rock. It paled in comparison to the other music I’d been hearing all day. But I can’t complain too much, given how much fun the whole weekend was.
Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4
My last two blog posts about Solid Sound were about what the members of Wilco were up to during this festival. But like any decent fest, this one wasn’t entirely about one band. In brief, the other highlights included a high-energy show on Saturday afternoon by The Dream Syndicate, who were cult favorites in the 1980s California indie-rock scene. This was their first North American gig in more than two decades, but as it felt like they’d never stopped playing.
Yo La Tengo played not one, but two shows during Solid Sound. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday night to get a set at the screening of the film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score performed by Yo La Tengo. On Saturday afternoon, the group played a typically excellent set of its songs, both old and new, with the most drastic shift in dynamics I heard all weekend. After blasting a couple of noisy songs to open their concert, Yo La Tengo took the volume way, way down for a couple of its hushed, whispery ballads, “The Point of It” and “Decora” — and it seemed like everyone in the crowd stopped making any sound so they could listen in. (At least, that’s what it was like by the stage, where I was standing.) By the end of the set, the band back at full volume.
Out of all the artists playing at Solid Sound, the one that seemed to represent younger, hyped bands was Foxygen. Just as they acted goofy during their recent in-store at Chicago’s Saki, Foxygen’s members seemed loopy at Solid Sound as they cavorted on the stage, playing their quirky, catchy songs. Perhaps they cavorted a bit too much. I heard most of Foxygen’s set, but I was away from the stage when lead singer Sam France reportedly tried to climb the scaffolding and got pulled down by security. Later in the day, I noticed three security guards surrounding Foxygen’s tambourine player, who looked intoxicated, and escorting him away from a tree. During Wilco’s show that night, Jeff Tweedy told the audience that the members of Foxygen had been “kicked out” of the festival. “They’re awesome. A little too awesome, I think,” he said. Later, he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage the band. But he dedicated the song “Passenger Side,” a song about drunk driving, to Foxygen. And then Tweedy brought up Foxygen one more time, suggesting that they might want to try drinking water onstage. The Reverse Direction blog has more about the Foxygen story. Whatever happened, I was charmed by what I saw of Foxygen’s set.
Although Low got some flack for playing one long droning song at the recent Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, the band played a standard set of its songs at Solid Sound on Saturday. And with Low, standard means beautiful.
Neko Case is another artist who nearly always delivers a good to great performance, and her show on Saturday night included a few songs from her forthcoming album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which comes out Sept. 3 on Anti. On first impression, the new songs sounded like a strong continuation of the singular style of music Case has been shaping over her last few records. For me, the highlight of the set was a heart-stopping performance of her 2002 song “I Wish I Was the Moon,” with Case’s voice plaintively calling out across the park in the opening verse. “We’re kind of a weird band for a festival because all of songs are bummers,” Case remarked at one point. Her stalwart harmony singer, Kelly Hogan, pointed out: “Low played earlier.” At the end of her set, Case said, “Every single song in our set is dedicated to that girl playing drums on her dad’s head.”
Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4
I reviewed this March 29 concert for the Daily Southtown, so for the most part, I’ll just refer you to my review, which is below. It was an excellent show, vintage Neko, with most of Fox Confessor and a good selection of older songs, plus some of the wackiest banter I’ve heard yet between Neko, Hogan and Rauhouse. Lots of talk about Peeps and badger musk. The opening set by Matt Pond PA was pretty good, too, followed by an odd interlude featuring an overhead projector and two people drawing on transarent slides.
Here’s the Southtown review…
Neko Case sprinkles her concerts with wickedly funny, ribald and downright odd stage banter, but all of that silliness vanishes when she is in the throes of singing. Just about every song during her concert Thursday at Chicago’s Park West had at least one moment when Case arched back her head, squeezed her eyes shut and belted out notes that were bold as well as beautiful. The audience falls silent at these moments, and it’s hard not to sense a feeling of awe sweep over the crowd.
For more than a year now, Case has been touring behind her album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Thursday’s concert — the second of three nights at Park West — did not offer any new material. Case was not lacking for good songs, though. Fox Confessor was one of 2006’s best records, showcasing Case’s development as a writer of sophisticated words, melodies and arrangements.
If anything, the Fox Confessor songs sounded fuller and more assured than they did when Case played with largely the same band in concert a year ago. In the studio versions, these songs feature many little flourishes, but the touring band lacks piano, violin, dulcimer and some of the other instruments Case used on the record. With some experience on the road, Case’s band now knows how to simulate that mysterious country-gothic atmosphere with a few plucks on the banjo and a thump of the stand-up bass.
Two of Case’s old pals from the Chicago alt-country scene, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, who are fine vocalists in their own right, sang harmonies Thursday. More than just singing simple “oohs” and “aahs,” Hogan and O’Connor often added complex gospel-style counterpoints to Case’s songs.
In between her dramatic and often thrillingly evocative songs, Case proved that she is no diva by shifting into silly mode and telling several strange jokes involving Peeps candy. (Her fantasy of her own funeral: “Hot-glue-gun Peeps all over me.”)
In the middle of one of her most haunting songs, “Wish I Was the Moon,” Case accidentally continued singing at a point when a pedal-steel guitar solo was supposed to begin. Embarrassed at her gaffe, she mimicked sticking a knife into her stomach. Hogan walked over and hugged Case consolingly, doing a little dance with her in the middle of the song. Of course, it was a forgivable mistake — the sort of moment that makes Case seem more like a regular person, in spite of her extraordinary talent.