“I don’t like to talk about my songs” might not be the most auspicious start to a concert in Disney Hall’s “Songbook” series, but on Friday night Neko Case made it work.
While the willowy, visibly nervous singer-songwriter (awed by the room’s intimacy and acoustics) made no attempt to give the evening an overarching narrative, her circular and convoluted commentary — which could go so far down the rabbit hole that Kelly Hogan, a wonderful singer who served as Case’s backing vocalist and comic foil, joked that “I’m sitting on that mushroom with you, honey” — probably offered more insight than she imagined.
Case matter-of-factly described her father as “a very lonely man,” admitted to lifting the intense imagery of “Dirty Knife” from Ukrainian fairy tales her grandmother told her and deflected interpretation (the bloody “Star Witness,” which many listeners have speculated is about a car crash, is not). She also defended the title track from last year’s terrific “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” (Anti-) on the basis that “it’s hard to play and has a lot of chords” (unfortunately, its “eight or so” chords added up to something only a songwriter could love, an overly busy and lumpy collection of lovely phrases that on Friday never quite gelled). But mostly her scattered and witty banter fell under what she called “nonspecific explanations.”
That’s probably as good a description of Case’s appeal as the evening’s official subtitle, “Bittersweet Country.” The 90-minute concert was suffused with a hazy disorientation, as when trying to recall a dream (a word that showed up repeatedly in both Case’s introductions and songs) after waking up. Concrete images — a heart “green as weeds grown to outlive their season,” seeing telephone poles that “follow each other/one after another, after another” on the road, a dead sparrow whose “dusty eyes” are “cold as clay” — pull you into her world, but when you try to reach for them, they dissipate, as hard to pin down as smoke.
The music has that same mysterious allure; to get to the plink of a banjo or the moan of a pedal steel (which descends from its heights like the imagined plane crash on “Lady Pilot”), you have to wade through the slightly tattered, upholstered guitars and standup bass. Disney Hall’s lively acoustics only emphasized their spacious, vaporized sound.
Although she never cut loose, Case sang beautifully. Her voice can swell like a bruise and cut with the stinging precision of a razor. It packs a haunting emotional wallop that needs no explanation.