The release of seventh solo album Hell-On may have came five years after her last but the intervening period hasn’t exactly been uneventful for Neko Case. She’s collaborated with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs, maintained her longstanding involvement in The New Pornographers on 2017’s The Whiteout album and also had to contend with the small matter of her house burning down while she was over in Sweden recording Hell-On.
Tonight’s show at the Barbican saw her perform most of Hell-On with her well-drilled six-piece backing band and confirmed the elevated position she now holds, approaching something close to alt.country/alternative rock royalty.
An artist at the other end of her career opened tonight’s show, namely Scottish singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph and her set was another welcome opportunity to experience current album From When I Wake The Want Is. Her music may be frail and quivering but it’s also undeniably physical and corporeal. She conveys primal emotions, balanced delicately on the finest of edges. After an especially moving We Have Been Loved By Our Mothers she jokes how “this place is too big for an old lady in a pink jumpsuit” but if her trajectory is maintained it isn’t difficult to envisage her headlining similarly sized shows in the near future.
Neko Case opens with a pair of tracks from the new album. Pitch Or Honey shows her willingness to deviate from set musical paths while Last Lion Of Albion is evidence of her ability to write melodically engaging and immediate pop songs. They also prove beyond doubt her continued vocal prowess; she’s still capable of dynamic, flawless delivery. Later the pop-hit-that-never-was Bad Luck is confidently despatched and Curse Of The I‐5 Corridor is full of lyrical depth and diversions.
In between these new moments she revisits some of her older material. Deep Red Bells sees her package tenderness and strength together in the space of one breath and also features some pleasing pedal steel guitar. Margaret vs. Pauline meanwhile is an example of how she populates her songs with elliptically drawn characters (“the girl with the parking lot eyes” remains one of many alluringly abstract lines). We get more when she plays Winnie and Halls Of Sarah, the latter which expands melodically from modest origins. Maybe Sparrow sees her vocals at their most projecting and forthright. Surveying her surroundings she comments how “it’s too fancy in here for us”. It may partially explain how she seems to take a little longer to interact with the audience (but when it does come it cover everything from politics to fashion choices of her band and much in between).
Gumball Blue manages to strike a more reflective tone while also flirting with a more mainstream rock sound and Oracles Of The Maritimes has a powerfully restrained quality, something she’s excelled at for years. Crowd-pleaser Hold On, Hold On is saved towards the end before they finish by blasting through Man.
The reappear for an encore that begins with the twists and turns of Hell-On, showing how she’s able to change the pace and direction of songs to striking effect. The golden-hued The Pharoahs follows and she signs off with a pacy run through of This Tornado Loves You. They all confirmed a consummate performance by an artist of genuine distinction.