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Neko Case’s return to the Old Pueblo is a sort of homecoming for the indie veteran. Her latest solo offering, ‘Hell-On’ (ANTI- Records), was mostly recorded at Tucson’s WaveLab Studios. Case disclosed how nervous she was performing in front of her adopted home crowd. Playing her first show in Southern Arizona in five years, her set was liberal in its song selection as it was long. Having been roughly a dozen years since seeing her last (in fact, on this very stage!), her vocal melody on the slow-building opener “Pitch or Honey” from her new LP is as warm and welcoming as flannel sheets on a cold winter’s night. Another new track “Last Lion of Albion” is quick to follow. Capturing the power of backing vocalists Rachel Flotard and Shelley Short, especially when juxtaposed to Case’s brutal vulnerability on the verse; “They’ll use you for centuries to come/Your wounds the main road to London/You’ll feel extinction when you see your face on their money.”
Dipping into 2002’s ‘Blacklisted’ (Bloodshot/ANTI-), for “Deep Red Bells”, it was the most alt country of the night with a spirited pedal steel solo courtesy of virtuoso Jon Rauhouse, bringing accolades from an appreciative Rialto crowd. “City Swans” (from 2013’s ANTI- release, ‘The Worst Things Get, The Harder I Fight – The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You), was quick to follow and upping the tempo with it’s wonderful backbeat. A number that could easily be mistaken for one of her other projects, The New Pornographers.
Delving into 2006’s ‘Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’ (ANTI-), for “Margaret vs. Pauline” followed by “Maybe Sparrow” and eventually “Hold On, Hold On”, Case and company provide faithful renditions of the trio. The opening acoustic strums of M vs. P mask the uneasiness of a rich vs. poor duality amongst rolling piano work. Case’s vocal passion on the recorded version of Sparrow translate seamlessly here (attempts to save both bird and human), while also showcasing Rauhouse’s instrumental range via the banjo. Hold on harnesses Case’s penchant for wild west balladry with an indie rock twist. While difficult to find beauty with the song’s topics ranging from one’s family feeling foreign to leaving a wedding alone with a valium from the bride, beauty is here in spades in a live setting.
Other main set highlights include 2009’s “This Tornado Loves You” (from the ANTI- LP, ‘Middle Cyclone’); where Case becomes a beast of nature that carves a path of destruction across 65 miles in search of her loved one. A mid-set cluster of new material “Bad Luck”, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” and “Gumball Blue” captures a sparse and uneasiness that you would be forgiven in thinking had to do with some real-life adversities in Case’s build-up to recording the new album. While recording in Sweden, her home burned to the ground (no casualties, thankfully), followed by a journalist publishing her home address while covering the fire. Not welcome news for a person who has had more than one run-in with stalkers. Despite the hard times, Case has admittedly called her latest LP her poppiest, a proposition easily agreed to as toes tap to “Bad Luck” and its angelic chorus transforming the Rialto into a tabernacle. I-5 is one her most personally revealing tracks (from records full of them), and something she is more than comfortable sharing with the audience while Gumball faithfully sticks to its kraut-pop roots no doubt inspired by co-writer A.C. Newman.
Wrapping up an extensive main set, Case and band started a 5-song encore with the new record’s title track (from her first solo album in five years).
Lyrics like “God is a lusty tire fire” are even more macabre in a live setting. Revisiting ‘Middle Cyclone’ for a gorgeous rendition of “The Pharaohs”, Neko’s vocal work is as distinctive as Patsy Cline’s and just as lasting. The following “That Teenage Feeling” from Fox Confessor features lullaby-like, ‘50s-era guitar balladry with vocals that still yearn for love as if written yesterday. Going back to 2004’s ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ (ANTI-), Case put her foot to the floor with the heaviest rocker of the evening, an urgent rendition of “Loretta”; a Nervous Eaters cover. ‘The Worse Things Get’ opus “Ragtime” put the perfect nightcap on a triumphant return to her adoptive home; a visit that had been well worth the wait.
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