Neko Case (photo: Jon Bauer)
Neko Case returned to the Fox Theater in Oakland last week on Monday, December 3. Despite Case’s display of self-deprecating humor and anxiety over growing old, her stage presence, voice, and songwriting remained a timeless thrill. Even on a school night.
Over the weekend, Neko and her band wrapped an extensive North American and European tour that bounced her all over. Beginning in July and ending in San Diego on December 8, she only had the month of October off, and not even completely. Monday’s show in Oakland was her first return to the Fox since 2017.
Opening the show was a solo set from Destroyer. Longtime indie music fans and OG admirers of Neko may have recognized the lone figure on stage as Dan Bejar. Along with Neko, Bejar is one of the original members of the Canadian singer-songwriter supergroup the New Pornographers.
Bejar’s set was totally acoustic — just him and his guitar. But unlike the open-mic vibe I got from the full band performance of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, this one man commanded the room’s attention. However, most of the audience seemed to feel as though the performance was disposable. Especially near the back of the room, the crowd’s own conversations battled with the speakers. Up front, however, I had found my people. Near the stage, concert-goers were quietly listening and feeling the subtle, slow-motion heartbreak and jubilation being presented.
Destroyer’s solo set lasted about 40 minutes and spanned the entirety of their catalog, including a couple new songs that were well-received. About 45 minutes later, Neko Case and her band took the stage. She appeared on the stage wearing skeleton leggings. She included several jokes about rocking on a school night and lamented her timing in music.
“We’d have been huge in 1986,” she laughed. ‘Michael Jackson rich.”
The next hour-and-a-half covered an impressive array from Neko’s career, spanning 17 songs in the first 75 minutes and a five-song encore. While most of the set spent its time wandering around her two most recent records, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, and the 2018 follow-up, Hell-On.
About a quarter of the way from the beginning of the set and again near the end, Neko dipped as far back as her 2002 record Blacklisted. She performed “Deep Red Bells” and “Look For Me, I’ll Be Around,” respectively. “Deep Red Bells” featured a reeling pedal steel guitar solo, and almost felt like a new song compared to the original take. Despite her constant off-handed grumbling about growing old and acting like a grandma, her voice felt just as lofty and ethereal as I remember first hearing it over a decade ago.
“So much has happened since we played here last,” Neko said as she addressed the crowd before playing her second single from Hell-On, “Bad Luck.” “But we’ve been all over and this is one of the top five venues in the world.”
A lot has happened, though. In the five years between solo records, Neko released an album and toured with k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs in 2016 as well another New Pornographers album in 2017. Oh yeah, and her house burned down while she was on tour overseas. But none of them are the story of this recording — the songs are the story. “They are my best self. They are everything I’ve worked for since I was a kid, whether I knew it or not.”
“The Curse of the I-5 Corridor” followed, and she dedicated the next Hell-On tune, “Gumball Blue,” as a love song to the New Pornographers. “Oracle of the Maritimes” ended the streak of new tunes. Case then dipped back into her past for “Hex,” first appearing on her 2004 live album The Tigers Have Spoken.
The 2002 track “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)” followed. Her back-up vocalists, who had been stage left of Neko all evening, left the stage for this song only. A dark, haunting Rhodes piano sound creeped through the building, and the crowd was ecstatic.
The backup singers returned after the throwback and performed three more songs before the encore. A selection from Hell On , “Dirty Diamond”), Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (“Hold On, Hold On”) and ended with “Man” from The Harder Things Get.
The five song encore included the title track from Hell On, music from The Tigers Have Spoken (“Loretta”), and “Ragtime” from The Harder Things Get. The highlight for this reviewer, however, came with the two encore performances from 2009’s Middle Cyclone: “The Pharaohs” and “This Tornado Loves You,” which ended the show.