I think it was around 13 years ago that I saw Neko Case perform in a narrow, smoke-filled dive in downtown Albuquerque. The sound system was bad, the drinks were worse, the bar food even more so. I squeezed up the stairway to nab a stool with a good sightline, and brushed shoulders with a petite redhead, who turned out to be Case, going the other way. I was in town for some sort of conference. It was quite by chance that I had spotted the flyer for the show, but as soon as I had it was certain that I would be there.
I’d only recently been introduced to her voice, on one or another of her early recordings. It sounded like something slipping on a patch of oil in an alley, or scraping a block of ice, or resounding in the defunct tubing of a decommissioned factory. The genre was country, but it was urban, too. I think someone had coined the term “country noir” to describe it, but all I cared about was the metallic lyricism of the wail with which she sang it. So there I was, waving off second hand smoke, looking down at her from about the same angle as the lousy spotlights, and a little besotted by the chance physical contact I’d had with her on the stairs.
It turned out she wasn’t feeling well, and she kept apologizing for her voice, which I still couldn’t get enough of, and she made it known that she thought the sound system intolerable, such that she adjusted her repertory to play older acoustic songs rather than the newer ones that required electronic instruments. This was, it seemed to me, out of respect for the audience and a penchant for perfectionism. She apologized to the end of the set, and I suppose it wasn’t her finest hour, but the show stuck with me, and so did my admiration, for the edginess of her art, the nervous integrity of her presence, and her voice, that both scares and seduces.
I saw her a second time, a few years ago at one of those Midtown concert venues that reek of industry types, with their vague contempt for the public and sense of ownership over the artists. Case delivered, because that is what an artist with a public does, but it seemed the wrong place for her, and it showed, somehow, in her attitude. She didn’t complain or apologize, but she didn’t seem happy either.
Last night was my third time with her, this time under the deco arches of Radio City Music Hall, and finally she was treated decently by her environs. The sound was clear as crystal, and it was etched by the diamond blade of her voice, leaving nary a chip nor a smudge. She still, despite the size of the venue, simply sang the songs, which started when they started and ended when they were over, just as they were written to; she doesn’t like to spin them out or improvise; she and her band members simply take their places and stay put, with no effort to rev up the crowd or excite it by any other means. The cleanness of the concert hall might have been a little less suited to the subject matter of her edgier songs than that stale bar in New Mexico, but she expressed her liking for it more than once, and it better matched her perfectionism, and she was, as a result, just about perfect.