Neko Case and the Sadies, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY, U.S.A., February 14, 2005

Neko Case, arguably the reigning queen of alternative country music, is a very busy lady. Besides being part of a band called The New Pornographers, who just finished recording a new album, Neko's solo career has been active on multiple fronts. She is hard at work on her next solo disc, despite having released the excellent The Tigers Have Spoken just this past November. That live album was largely written and performed in collaboration with the Canadian band The Sadies , who also have a new album Favourite Colours to tout.

Currently, Case and The Sadies are promoting their respective albums together on tour as a double bill, with The Sadies performing by themselves first and then backing up Neko Case in the headlining set. Their itinerary included a two-day stop at the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, culminating with a performance on Valentine's Day.

The Sadies showed themselves to be potent musicians fluent in several old sub-genres of country and rock, but Neko Case clearly deserved and relished her starring role. For one thing, as anyone who has heard her recordings can attest, she happens to possess one of the most moving voices in music. People familiar with her only through her CD's might be surprised, though, to discover her quirky, unpredictable sense of humor. Her long conversations with the audience, and one rather bizarre Valentine's Day stunt, defined her show this past Monday as much as her music did.

The Sadies took the stage first. Based in Toronto, this quartet currently bears the standard for the straightforward, two guitars, bass and drums, no frills whatsoever approach to making rock and roll. Their set consisted of a series of short, quick songs and instrumentals, heavily influenced by surf rock and bands like the Byrds. They also reflected a strong country influence as well, covering songs by Bob Willis and Gram Parsons, and threw in a gospel number "There Is A Higher Power" for good measure.

Their prowess as players, and their contribution to the great sound of The Tigers Have Spoken, were immediately evident in their performance. However, the Sadies suffer from a lack of a powerful stage presence; guitarists Dallas and Travis Good seemed to be more comfortable hiding behind their hair than engaging the audience. In addition, while I do feel there is plenty of room for back-to-the-basics retro rock in contemporary music, I didn't get the sense that the Sadies have added anything to the genres they play that would distinguish them from the performers and bands that influence their sound. Being familiar with them only through their work with Neko Case, I felt like I was watching the Wailers without Bob Marley, or the E Street Band without Bruce Springsteen. The Sadies can obviously play, but something very important was missing from the mix.

In complete contrast, Neko Case loves to talk to the audience, and possesses a peculiar comic spontaneity that, by itself, would justify the price of admission even if her vocal talents merely ranked as ordinary. I got the sense that the show was about to start when Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" played through the venue's speakers; something about the juxtaposition of that particular song and Valentine's Day seemed like too much of a coincidence. Just in case anybody didn't catch on, the song was then played again over the speakers. Case and the Sadies finally took the stage during the third run-through. Before commencing with the concert, Case extolled the virtues of that particular song, then described her feelings about Valentine's Day, "a greeting card holiday about sex and sheer disappointment."

She may have come across a bit goofy, but it didn't take long for her to remind everybody of her greatest asset. Neko Case's voice is simply lethal. After about five measures of the opening song "Favorite," one of her many songs about broken relationships, she had the audience at her mercy.

The material from The Tigers Have Spoken predictably dominated the set. Case and the Sadies managed to get through the entire album save the last song, "Wayfaring Stranger." The tight harmonies provided by the female backing vocalists who performed on the album were missing, but hearing Case's sultry voice unadorned and in person more than adequately compensated for the loss. Case performed a few songs from her back catalog as well, including "Outro with Bees" from 2002's Blacklisted and "Make Your Bed" from her obscure 2001 mini-album Canadian Amp. She also spent plenty of time conversing with the audience as well, frequently returning to the subject of Valentine's Day while introducing yet another heartbreaker.

She dedicated "Hex" to the single guys, suggesting that the song would make them cry in front of the single ladies and up their chances with them. About halfway through the show, Case introduced her special guest for the evening, the venerable Garth Hudson. A grayer version of the hirsute, eccentric musical wizard he was in his days with The Band, Hudson brought his accordion onstage and performed with Neko and The Sadies for the duration of the concert. This newly augmented line-up commenced by covering Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken" and The Band's" Evangeline." At this point, the group took a brief intermission, presumably to correct a technical problem. Naturally, "Feel Like Making Love" was played yet again over the speakers.

Before the music resumed, Case came onstage with another lady, presumably somebody involved with the tour. After Case tearfully explained to this other woman why their love for each other must remain unconsummated, the lady pulled out a plastic knife and poked herself with it, at which point Case pretended to stab herself as well. A few pools of fake blood later, The Sadies and Garth Hudson assumed their positions. I was half expecting them to break into The Rolling Stones -- "If I could stick a knife in my heart, suicide right on the stage..." -- but they opted for a gospel song instead.

A few songs later, the set closed with the punkish "Loretta" off The Tigers Have Spoken. For the encore, Case, The Sadies, and Hudson performed a song called "Train on the Island." Then Case ended the night by improvising a Valentine's Day ode to the city of New York and her audience. The backing music The Sadies provided for this song sounded curiously similar to "Feel Like Making Love."

Clearly, the experience of seeing Neko Case in concert extends beyond simply hearing her voice. Her antics add a rare degree of spontaneity and unpredictability to her performance. Much like Beth Orton, her flighty banter strikes an odd contrast with her dark songs and her haunting melodies. People might debate whether that is a good thing or not, but I at least found it entertaining; in a way, she supplies her own comic relief. Still, her classic country voice is her calling card, and all the reason anybody needs to go see her perform.

Neko Case and The Sadies have found common musical ground in their loyalty to older, more traditional styles of country and rock. The Sadies certainly perform with enough competence to do the old styles justice, but Neko Case's special voice and endearingly nutty charm put her own distinct, revitalizing stamp on them. She should remain an essential performer, on disc and especially on stage, for the indefinite future.


 

[Scott Gianelli]