For Neko Case, 2009 has been a good year. “Middle Cyclone” (Anti-), released this spring, is easily her bestselling album, and has expanded her appeal beyond the alt-country and Americana auds into the mainstream. Sales have edged into the six-figure range, fueled in part by the continuing popularity of the New Pornographers and the nearly universal rapturous reviews and features in the New York Times and on NPR (KCRW, the local public radio flagship, sponsored the show).
Can this translate to live performances? On Friday, Case (with former Granddaddy frontman Jason Lyttle opening) played the Greek Theater, a giant leap from the small theaters she’s played on her previous tours. But the 6,000-seat outdoor amphitheater was only two-thirds filled, which puts Case in an ungainly position of having a fan-base too large for 2000-seat theaters such as the Wiltern, but not yet able to move up to sheds and larger venues such as the Greek, New York’s Radio City and L.A. Live’s Nokia Theater.
One reason for this could be the very nature of Case’s music. Her literate, finely detailed songs are more absorbing than stirring, turning on unexpected transitions and subtle shades of meaning. Barry Mirochnick and Tom V. Ray’s rhythms are spacious and unforced, and Paul Rigby’s guitar has the occasional Byrds-like pop structure, but is more likely to lazily spar with Jon Rauhouses’ work on pedal steel, banjo and guitar.
The songs from “Cyclone” — smudged waltzes and soft-focus country moans — make up the majority of the set. They don’t conform to typical song structures, see-sawing between chords, the patterns extended or truncated on whims and moods; shifting from haunting lament to gospel plea like the wind, with an admirable refusal to resolve. And while backing vocalist Kelly Hogan encouraged the crowd to hook up, Case’s exquisite cataloging of romantic dissatisfaction (“I want the Pharaohs/but there’s only men,” goes one lyric) does not lend itself to romance.
And Case, never the most forthcoming of performers, seemed especially edgy on this night. She held her arms stiffly at her side, warily engaging the appreciative (if less than demonstrative) aud behind her flame-red hair, and she didn’t engage much with her wonderfully sympathetic backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, who did most of the talking.
It made for an absorbing, if somewhat chilly, evening. Case continues her tour, including dates at Chicago’s Lollapalooza and New York’s All Points East Festivals.