The best pairing of the summer -- and possibly the year -- didn't disappoint. A Neko Case/Eric Bachmann bill works so well because both artists have abandoned heavier, louder roots for roots rockin', and both do the latter so well. And because both do it first and foremost with voice.
Bachmann littered his set with self-deprecation, refusing to acknowledge the love that was in the room for him. The crowd was chatty during his set for sure, but there was enough hootin' and hollerin' for him to recognize he had an ample number of fans. He chose to play the underdog, though he's used to playing in such venues before large hipster crowds from his days with pop noise darlings Archers of Loaf. Alone and armed only with an acoustic guitar, he acted like a disgruntled up-and-comer, but let's assume his tongue was stuck firmly in his cheek.
Bachmann didn't disappoint the fans in attendance one bit. We may not be used to seeing him so naked up there, but his song selection drew upon last year's solo record, "To the Races," and some Spanish-language songs as well as his alt-Americana band Crooked Fingers -- Fingers fan fav "New Drink for the Old Drunk" was well-received, played loose with a new acoustic picking element added to the ol' familiar music -- and Archers of Loaf, though he introduced his Archers number, "Dead Red Eyes," as a song he doesn't play, a song that he used to play in this band he was in. Please. Enough of us know that band he was in and, more importantly, were tickled that he included Archers material in the set. Though the Archers were definitely noisy, "Dead Red Eyes" came off the last album, which hinted at the direction Bachmann would head after the group disbanded -- the singer-songwriter direction. More specifically, the roots direction. And even more specifically, the direction of the Appalachian Mountains.
Likewise, before the Crooked Fingers tune "Devil's Train," he intro'd the song as something "about eight of you know." Drama king, he. Eh, let him have it. The song soared. His unique picking style and the uplifting nature of the music behind the words trumped the bleak lyrics and the vocal style -- a gruff, deep, growling croon as opposed to the shouting and howling he was known for in the '90s. But the truth of his set is that the highlight was when Neko Case -- revealing herself as a Bachmann fan (thanks, Neko) -- came out with her pedal steel guitarist, Jon Rauhouse, to duet with Bachmann on another Crooked Fingers song, the heart wrenching "Coldways." Her clean, pure vocals were an effective contrast to his gutter moan.
And her voice was the focal point of the night. Neko has often criticized studio-enhanced vocals and sworn that her voice on record is her voice true. Such criticisms are the luxury of the few with singing voices so clean, confident and strong. She brought a hefty ensemble with her -- in addition to Rauhouse's pedal steel and banjo there was another guitarist, a drummer and a stand-up bassist, as well as the angelic backing vocals of Kelly Hogan -- but that was all atmosphere, almost window dressing, to embellish Neko's incredible vocals. This one-time punk rock drummer is a pro alt-country singer, using her mic perfectly time for studio-worthy fade effects and stunning loud-soft dynamics. More a rarity than it should be, the singer's voice was the best instrument of the evening.
From time to time, Neko reached back into the early days of her solo career with the songs "Set Out Running" from 2000's "Furnace Room Lullaby," a shattering rendition of "Favorite" from 2001's "Canadian Amp," and a couple of her collaborations with The Sadies in "The Tigers Have Spoken" and "If You Knew" -- though the Alexandria-born Case ignored her first record, "The Virginian" -- but her set focused on her most recent, and best, albums, 2002's "Blacklisted" and last year's "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." She led off with "Blacklisted's" lead song, "Things That Scare Me." A fan favorite from "Fox Confessor" followed. "This is a song for those of you who refuse to get married," Neko said before "That Teenage Feeling," earning guffaws from friends of couples in the crowd -- and there was plenty of lovey dovey at the club. "The Tigers Have Spoken" had her bringing Lucy Wainwright -- "stolen from the Rufus Wainwright tour" -- on stage to harmonize (How much musical offspring did the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan spawn? I'd never heard of Lucy.) and saw Neko and her guitarist both plugging in for the first time. The spectral and romantically haunting "Star Witness" followed and was one of the highlights of the night. The music is rooted in country and Americana, but such songs are as infectious -- more, even -- than the summer singles of pop culture, sticking in your head long after the show and never threatening your sensibilities.
In addition to her beautiful voice, Hogan offered witty go-between with her friend Neko, seemingly keeping the star of the night loose, particularly when they reminisced about great Burt Reynolds' movie soundtracks of the '70s. "Smokey and the Bandit" was obvious, but surprising and witty was Hogan's reference to the fade out line from "Gator:" "Gator gonna get your gonads!" So, relaxed and all smiles, the band followed "Star Witness" with another set highlight, "Deep Red Bells," featuring a searing steel solo from Rauhouse.
Any good roots rocker will pay homage to the past, and Neko has always been exceptional in this regard, but she didn't favor us with anything unpredicted this time out, opting instead for Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," which she gave us on "Live in Austin, TX," and "Hex," a solo song from Case's Chicago comrade and Freakwater co-leader Catherine Irwin, which we heard Neko cover on the live album "The Tigers Have Spoken."
She exited the stage after the dark-but-sweet mid-tempo rocker "Hold On, Hold On," but not a soul left the club before she came back for a four-song encore, opening with the short "O Brother Where Art Thou?" worthy spiritual "A Widow's Toast" and finally wrapping things up by bringing back Wainwright and Bachmann to help out with the chorus of the gospel rock tune "John Saw That Number." Neko razzed Eric after one fan shouted "I love you Eric!" "They dig you, man," Neko cooed. "All tall and funny." And though it was another reminder that the crowd appreciated him more than he was willing to let on, it seemed a response to a set full of "I love you Neko!" and "I love you more!"
Things That Scare Me
That Teenage Feeling
Set Out Running
The Tigers Have Spoken
Deep Red Bells
Buckets of Rain
I Wish I Was the Moon
If You Knew
Hold On, Hold On
A Widow's Toast
John Saw That Number