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Neko Case overcomes obstacles

Wilbur Theatre, Boston, November 10, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The opening of Neko Case's show was unusual to say the least. "I'm angry right now," said the red head. "We just had a big fight with the promoter. We're going to sing weird, but we're actually very happy to be here."

Making quite clear that she was not a happy camper, Case still channeled her musical energies in just the right place for the rest of the 90-minute show.

The sheer force of her voice was enough to carry her through no matter the circumstances. Mixed high and easily heard, Case displayed a tremendous amount of vocal control and power - but that didn't mean she sang loudly or with bite all the time either. A sadness often came though thanks to her vocals on songs like People Got a Lotta Nerve and the haunting Vengeance is Sleeping.

She was aided by a strong backing band, including guitarist, banjo and pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse and backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Rauhouse added a lot of spark and a country feel to the songs with both his array of instruments. They tended to fill the gaps in between the vocals, keeping the songs on the softer side save for perhaps the closing song of the night, a cover of The Shangri-Las The Train from Kansas City.

Case relied heavily on her very fine CD from earlier this year, "Middle Cyclone," but she also dipped liberally into "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (very good versions of Maybe Sparrow and Hold On, Hold On).

Case proved not to be the most dynamic when it came to interacting with the crowd. One oddity was that Hogan talked far more to the crowd than Case. Case did not appear to be either a shy personality or short on voice. So, it was curious why she would cede valuable airtime to an underling. Some of the banter was between her and Hogan something that occurred in a Newport, R.I. show this summer. And some of it was not all that engaging - talking about old police TV shows.

This was not an evening of musical highs and lows. There were, in fact, no real lows, but neither did Case particularly build to anything either.

But what carried Case through this show - despite promoter hassles and a threat to sing weird, which if singing boldly is weird - was her muscular voice, a force of true beauty.

Calexico has gained a following in its own right for their brand of country, rootsy and Mexican inflected rock. This time out, however, Joey Burns and John Convertino are touring as a duo.

Touring as a duo raised questions about how would they be able to pull it off and flesh out the band that is Calexico. While certainly a stripped down affair with no horn section, Convertino and Burns acquitted themselves throughout the 10 song, 45-minute opening stint quite well with only help on one song from Rauhouse on He Lays in the Rein. Burn's sturdy vocals carried the music with his guitar work and Convertino's drumming filling the sounds.

Like Case, there were not peaks and valleys, but good meaty music that would not necessarily play well to or intended for the masses. Of course, that didn't mean it wasn't very good and satisfying.