The big city tonight glistens with autumn cool, and the rush to get into Cardiff’s prime underground venue, the Clwb Ifor Bach, is exacerbated by the fact that the show’s been moved upstairs due to ticket demand, and has to start much earlier than usual. This would normally hit attendances hard, tickets or no, but our girl Neko Case is enough of an exotic attraction to assure that everyone is there even in ample time for her support band.
There’s something about being greeted by an aching pedal steel that triggers a comforting, sentimental atmosphere, and John Rauhouse and his band of players treat us to a flowing set of country instrumentals that wander with a freeform ethos more typically associated with jazz. It’s clear from the start that Rauhouse is one of these guys who looks like they were born with the Steel frame at their front, and as he plucks away arched and inspired, his band coat his textures in equally soothing guitar, double bass and percussion.
Kelly Hogan has been a staple in Neko Case’s supporting cast for some time, featuring on a live John Peel tape from 2001 that might just be the first thing I’d save in a house fire if I was so afflicted, and when she joins Rauhouse and co on vocals for the last few tracks the effect is utterly uplifting. For twenty minutes Hogan regales us with tales of vintage Midwest wonder, her laid-back style perfectly augmenting the Rauhouse band’s classy fare.
You know what musical superstars are like, self-absorbed creatures who like to build up a sense of anticipation before they hit the stage, sometimes making you wait until rigor mortis has set in for a glimpse of their hallowed features. Not so Neko Case. Simply joining the previous retinue after a short break, she hits us immediately with the fully-fledged splendour of that voice, weakening the large crowd at the knees with a splendid aural assault.
There are absolutely no barriers between Case, her music, or her audience, and, though a little more reticent than usual tonight, her trademark between-song banter is remarkable for the way she launches into songs of such emotional significance so quickly afterwards. She can be talking about the pasties at the St Mary Street bakery with a carefree, easy air before leaping into a jaw-dropping vocal opening, and your jaw would still drop and heart twitch as if talk of pastries never existed.
Case has increasingly embraced the darker element to her music since debut LP The Virginian back in ’97, paving a new path for herself of “country noir” intrigue, but naturally, her most potent live songs are the ones that grab you by the throat and perforate your head with the kind of soaring melodies that suit her so well. The songs from recent LPs Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and The Tigers Have Spoken retain all of Case’s inherent fascination, if anything heightening it with their more barbed message, but classic old LP tracks like Set Out Running and Twist the Knife, dripping with traditional know-how and magical imagery, float across the venue like awe-inspiring spectres, Case’s voice a phenomenon to behold, tender and robust in all of the right places.
The crowd hangs on her every gesture during Furnace Room Lullaby, which brings together both ends of the Case ouvre, while Deep Red Bells, an engaging song about a Seattle girl’s vulnerability in light of the at-large Green River Killer, and I Wish I Was the Moon, shimmering with femme fatale soul, show her as a lyrical master of her own mysterious genre.
More than questions of genre though, all of Case’s songs sparkle with a rare depth and nuance that sees tonight’s capacity crowd totally enthralled, so much so that we’ve pretty much forgotten that there’s a bar to be visited at the back of the venue. I, for one, could have stood here all night, empty handed, being serenaded by this red headed wonder, but alas, it’s not to be. The autumn night once more beckons, and the cool city air will be breathed in ecstasy all the way home.