Gloomy, smoldering ballad “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is the song I really want Neko Case to play on this drizzly, uncommonly cool summer night in Boston, but of course she doesn’t. As an opening act, she’s been allocated less than an hour for her set, so the sprawling, 7-minute tale of loneliness, remorse, and redemption doesn’t make the cut, along with its titular admittance: “So I left home and faked my ID/ I fucked every man I wanted to be/ I was so stupid then/ Why should mystery give it’s life to me?”
In a recent interview with Spin, Case gives the lyric a more forgiving context: “I didn’t have any parents, so I didn’t know what love was. (I) looked back at (my)self a few years later and was like, “That’s so embarrassing, what I did and who I slept with.” The 45-year old alt-country chanteuse of the golden pipes and luminous red mane (now streaked with majestic gray) has since come to terms with her past indiscretions: “In the absence of shame there’s only acceptance. I don’t feel any shame about anything… it was more like, ‘It was a waste of time.’ I hate waste.”
She squanders not a single moment of her fifty minutes, drawing heavily from her newly-released sixth solo album Hell-On, a darkly sweet anthology of loss and self-reflection that is as much a cryptic invocation of life’s uncertainty as its beauty. Her sonorous, velvety alto (one of alternative music’s purest) remains a force of nature that swells on older, uptempo tracks “This Tornado Loves You” and “Man.”
On the latter, Case engages in the sort of rebellious, gender-bending role play that’s always underpinned her work as a woman playing rock music: “ I’m a man…/ I’m not an identity crisis/ This was planned” she belts over rambunctious guitars before delivering the knockout punch. “Cause you didn’t know what a man was/ Until I showed you.”
It’s probably for this reason that I arrive at the show sporting an assumption that, while innocent, is embarrassingly ill-conceived — that most of the women in the audience are here to see headliner Ray LaMontagne, and the men have come for his “special guest” Neko Case. The way I see it, LaMontagne’s sentimental pop choruses have always resonated with female audiences more than those of your average scratchy-throated folk singer, and Case’s sultry, unconventional torch songs often appeal more to dudes who are obsessed with murder ballads and David Lynch movies.
Turns out, I’m laughably wrong; nearly everyone here has come to see Ray, except for me. At least, that’s the story told by the crowd’s fashionably late arrival and the modest smattering of applause Case garners when she relinquishes the stage, as compared to the roars that go up when headliner LaMontagne emerges.
Lesson learned: popularity is gender agnostic. Big crowds depend less upon whether we’re men or women than if we’ve heard the artist’s music, enjoyed it and paid for it. It’s the reason why men are just as likely to attend Beyoncé concerts as women are to go see Jay-Z. Both are genuine megastars whose critical acclaim, pop radio dominance, and cultural relevance attract members of both sexes. (It’s also why touring and recording together as the Carters makes Bey and Hova the shrewdest oddsmakers in music today.) Most of us would be thrilled by the prospect of seeing someone that famous perform (not just famous, but fucking famous), regardless of which restroom we use.
And that dynamic certainly plays in favor of LaMontagne whose 13-year career includes a half-dozen top 10 Adult Alternative hits, among them “You Are The Best Thing” and “Trouble.” Case has never had a hit single. Her albums sell solely on their collective consistency. She defies convention with regularity, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures, cloaking gorgeous harmonies in minor key melodies, and leaving her loveliest songs as unfinished vignettes.
In typical fashion, Hell-On is a collection of oddly-positioned scalene triangles all bound by the perfect circle of Case’s voice. The lyrics are deliciously eccentric (“Oh, petroleum, You’re the top predator now” she coos on “Dirty Diamond”) and themes obtuse (“Last Lion of Albion” wraps a gorgeous melody around opposing forces of cultural extinction and capitalism). Case has sharp pop sensibilities but prefers complexity over simplicity, quirkiness over clarity. Just before the climactic instrumental over the bridge of “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” Case softly croons “instrumental over the bridge.”
That her smoke and satin voice should roam these strangely constructed songs remains a wonderful paradox — an exquisite evening gown that proudly reveals its stitching and frayed edges. By contrast, LaMontagne has always seemed tastefully scuffed yet emphatically benign, like the beige accent wall at your local Starbucks. As a friend of mine observes plainly: “I do chores to Ray. I clean the litter box and sort out clothes for goodwill.” LaMontagne’s music has a time and place in her life but doesn’t quite escape the exit velocity of its own banality.
Perhaps this is the reason why LaMontagne tries his damnedest tonight to rebuke the expectations of all of the fans who’ve come for this version of him. Someone in the crowd asks repeatedly for an old acoustic favorite and he responds curtly: “I’m not going to play ‘Jolene’ all freakin’ night. So don’t ask.” Rather, his set draws mostly from the heavier material on newly-released Part of The Light and its predecessor Ouroboros, Lamontagne’s unlikely venture into early 70’s, Pink Floyd-style prog rock. The pavilion is flooded with crunching guitar reverb, operatic strobes, and druggy vibes, a far cry from the 45-year old’s humble, singer-songwriter origins, and it’s pretty freaking cool, even if some of the early departing concert-goers seem a bit confused. The coffee house troubadour is indulging in his own little saucerful of secrets and taking some of the chances that Case has made a living off of (barely) since day one.
If there’s a takeaway, it might be that for every rule about the music business that’s still in place, there’s one that doesn’t apply anymore. Yes, traditional pop artists usually outsell the weird ones. You need look no further than the Bank of America Pavilion name on your ticket stub to see that corporate still trumps independent. But there’s more layers to the onion than was once assumed. A country gal can be a clever tomboy and still write earworms when she feels like it; a guy can be sensitive and still bro out on his electric if the spirit takes him. Even the exceptions to the rule have exceptions.
My lasting memory from the show is Case’s penultimate track “Pitch and Honey.” “I play major chords to make this a sadder song,” she murmurs over brooding piano keys that wouldn’t sound out of place in a horror film but not before admitting: “I hear overtones that make this another song.” The creeping shadows are dispelled by a sudden chord change and tempo uptick. Rich, finger-picked acoustics emerge as Case proudly harmonizes: “Hey, hey!/ I love you better when you’re wild/ Suits you better if I say so.” Those overtones she refers to magically materialize front and center as the song’s heartbeat quickens and Case’s voice soars, unfettered. “Pitch and Honey” is an apt description of the liquid dichotomy that exists within her music — ever tenacious, both impenetrable and sweet.
On the way out, I visit the merchandise booth intending to add a Neko Case t-shirt to my collection of concert memorabilia from artists my friends have never heard of. But I reconsider upon realizing there isn’t really any men’s apparel for sale except a dark green, unisex, zip-up hoodie with a mongrel’s head on its back that doesn’t come close to striking my fancy. Case’s women’s shirts, adorned with visual motifs wondrous and abstract, are far more appealing, but alas, too form-fitting for the male form. Her music, thankfully, is not.