Neko Case has been a single woman making music for many years now. Before there was ever a Sharon Van Etten, Jessica Lea Mayfield, or even Zooey Deschanel, Case was letting her unearthly voice introduce her heavily symbolic, emotionally acute music to fans everywhere. At first she helmed the now legendary indie outfit the New Pornographers, but has made her mark as a solo artist in recent years, thanks to her widely popular album Middle Cyclone, which set fire to the Billboard indie charts in 2009.
What many people don’t assume about Case, based on her stark and piercing songwriting, is that the indie goddess has a huge sense of humor. This playfulness was on full display on Sunday when she performed on Forecastle’s Mast Stage, with the help of a backing band and accompanying vocalist Kelly Hogan. Before the set even began, Case was cracking jokes: “I’m not going to lie… It’s hot,” she muttered before launching into “That Teenage Feeling,” from her critically acclaimed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Thus began the strange juxtaposition of Case’s infectious on-stage personality and her soaring, plummeting, spine-tingling material. After using her bountiful voice to buoy unusually literary songs like “Maybe Sparrow” and “The Tigers Have Spoken,” Case thanked the crowd and promptly dispelled the emotion-laden air with another lewd comment about the heat: “It’s hot as balls.” The chatter continued with, “I saw some shorts today that probably don’t even count as shorts.” Hogan, as much a hype woman as a back-up singer, only encouraged the self-effacing commentary, though she herself added as much lyrical atmosphere to the set as any other element with her smoky pipes. The two worked as well as a late-night talk show duo – so well, in fact, that by the time they had finished discussing the particular qualities of “punk rock butt” (“My butt crack is like a sluice with water running down it”), the audience was completely unprepared for the heavy, heavy weight of a song like “I Wish I Was the Moon Tonight.” After every eye had been sufficiently soaked by the enormity of lyrics like, “Thought that I was young / Now I've freezing hands and bloodless veins / As numb as I've become / I'm so tired,” Case and Hogan remained unfazed, steering the conversation towards the subjects of “whores and their importance to the ecosystem” and the delicious burgers on the menu at 21C.
Did this rapport diminish the power of the performance? Perhaps. Case is one of the greatest songwriters of the past two decades, pulling zero punches with her austere symbolism and bare-bones exploration of the human experience. She also has one of the most striking voices of any female singer in the business, able to convey without any effort the power fueling a song like “This Tornado Loves You,” sliding up and down scales like a roll of thunder. Despite the seeming brevity of each song performed at Forecastle, the afternoon seemed like a journey through the very roots of American music and American life. It’s possible the goofiness and off-color remarks made the act of appreciating the artist for her full range of talents more difficult. But at 41 years of age, and after nearly twenty years of crafting incredible art, Neko Case reserves the right to be herself whenever she feels like it.