Neko Case / April 13, 2009 / New York City (Nokia Theatre)

What used to be a telling sign of Neko Case’s rise in stature was not necessarily how well her albums were doing. Instead, her success could be charted in a different way: the rise in cat calls from her male audience over the years. It was somewhat awkward to hear perfectly grown men shout their own notions of love and adulation between songs. Now, she--along with her audience--takes it in stride, an acceptance of her fate as alt-country’s prom queen. So when a lone voice shouted, “I love you, Neko Case,” during the first night of her sold out, two night stand at Times Square’s Nokia Theatre, she simply replied. “Thank you. Me too.”

Case is most content when she’s singing hangdog songs about a hangdog way of life. At this point her catalog seems to blur itself, and you almost start to forget which song is from which album. It’s a testament to her songwriting; Case is clearly obsessed with the foibles of relationships, the scenery as it goes by, and how to pick up the pieces.

On this night, she played the part of the poised, unbroken woman with a high degree of integrity. “Don’t Forget Me” and “Middle Cyclone” had her at her most battered, tender moments. Her voice was forlorn at the right times, her body language conveying every shake and rattle one would have at the moments she’s describing. When she uttered the line, “I’ll miss you when I’m lonely, I’ll miss the alimony too,” she sounded gut punching and redemptive at the same time.

On more than one occasion, Case diverted the crowd’s collective gaze off her and towards her band mates, highlighting longtime multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, the understated MVP of Case’s touring band. Rauhouse augments Case in ways that are imperative to the fading juke-box era she’s tapping. During “The Pharoahs,” his pedal steel conveyed that sleepy, backwoods feel any rooted country singer needs, and his banjo figured prominently during “Favorite” and “Maybe Sparrow,” adding to the rustic feel the singer sometimes exudes.

As expected, Case’s set was dominated by tunes from “Middle Cyclone,” released last month. She quickly belted out the first single, “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” but held off on the album’s gems until the end. “This Tornado Loves You” featured a guest appearance by Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann on guitar, and the swaying ballad “Magpie To The Morning” had Case working through her illusionary narratives with ease. Only during “Prison Girls” did her voice sound a bit slurry, but it was a forgivable moment, if only to realize that she has the same faults her songs often champion.

Setlist:

“Maybe Sparrow”
“People Got a Lotta Nerve”
“Fever”
“Hold On, Hold On”
“The Pharoahs”
“Middle Cyclone”
“Deep Red Bells”
“I Wish I Was The Moon”
“I’m an Animal”
“Prison Girls”
“The Tigers Have Spoken”
“Margaret vs. Pauline”
“Red Tide”
“Don’t Forget Me”
“That Teenage Feeling”
“This Tornado Loves You” (with Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers)

Encore:

“Vengeance Is Sleeping”
“Favorite”
“Magpie to the Morning”
“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”
“Knock Loud”