Case study: Neko Case live at Koko, London, 1 November 2006

Neko CaseIt had been a good few years since I last stepped off the Tube at Mornington Crescent. It had been just as long since I set foot in the theatre-like club/venue opposite the station. Last time out, it was still called the Camden Palace. A reformed Hanoi Rocks were headlining. They didn’t do much for me so I left early.

Last night’s Neko Case gig couldn’t have been more different – though the venue seemed to be pretty much the same as I remember, despite its new name, Koko, and expensive revamp. The walls had, I was reliably informed, been painted. The toilets, I noticed, had a new layout. Other than that, it was difficult to see where the big bucks had been spent. I hope that they didn’t spend too much on the Death Star-sized glitterball that cast a motion sickness-inducing carpet of spots over the walls, ceiling, floor and, as the venue filled up, crowd. I’d have gladly slipped someone a fiver to switch it off. How about some strobe lighting between bands? That’d really have ’em fitting in the aisles. It was a relief when the lights went down and M Ward took to the stage.

Though Mr Ward – Matt to his friends – shared billing on the tickets, I wasn’t expecting an hour’s set; I thought that it was more of an acknowledgement of his critical success – like, hey, look who’s supporting Neko! After 40 minutes, I felt rather restless.

In preparation for the gig, I bought three M Ward albums (in for a penny). I quite like the latest, Post-War, but the other two just kind of sailed by me. Naturally, it was the songs from Post-War that grabbed my attention last night. Everything else, well, just kind of sailed by me – though the Bowie cover, Let’s Dance, was noticed for all the wrong reasons. Slowed down to a funereal pace and played on an acoustic guitar, it doesn’t work for me on record and it didn’t work for me live.

And when I wasn’t engaged with the songs, I found myself noticing the performer’s kooky little mannerisms, such as having the mic stand much lower than it should be, so he could stand in a crouch while singing. He had that pigeon-toed thing going on, too – something I find charming in Ryan Adams, but I found it irritating here. By the end, I was glad when he waved goodbye.

Neko Case, on the other hand, I’d have gladly watched play all night. I last saw her back in May, at the larger Shepherds Bush Empire – a show that’s a definite candidate for my gig of the year.

Though last night’s set wasn’t quite as good, I’m only dropping marks for three things: 1) not playing John Saw That Number, 2) Kelly Hogan replacing Rachel Flotard on backing vocals (Ms Hogan was great, but Ms Flotard was great and cheeky), and 3) having M Ward come on for the first encore to play one of his songs, To Go Home. It’s actually a good song, but after listening to Neko’s soaring, spine-tinglingly special voice for the last hour, Mr Ward suddenly sounded like the Cookie Monster.

Neko’s voice, for the benefit of the unacquainted, is a magical thing. As jaw-flooring as it is on record, she impresses even more when you see her singing live and realise how effortless it is. She’s someone with a really special voice whose talent appears to be completely natural and, if you believe such things, God-given. I’m just thankful that she realised and didn’t spend the rest of her days as she started out – playing drums in punk bands.

Though it’s probably considered bad form these days to comment on sartorial matters when reviewing gigs (no one’s really supposed to care, right?), I feel compelled to mention that Neko looked every inch the soulful country queen last night, dressed in a black, knee-length dress. I don’t think she was used to the high heels, as she kept threatening to fall off them and came back out for the encore in bare feet.

As with the Empire gig, last night’s set was heavy on songs from the latest album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood – no bad thing, as it’s a great record. But Neko was more than happy to glance backwards, dusting off tracks from all of her releases except for her debut, The Virginian, including Deep Red Bells, Furnace Room Lullaby, I Wish I Was The Moon, Set Out Running, Favorite, The Tigers Have Spoken and If You Knew. The final encore was Knock Loud, from Canadian Amp, an underrated gem of a record on which Neko performs mostly covers. I was hoping for a gospel-singalong ending (see point 1 above), but it was not to be – it was already 10 minutes past 11 and the glitterball was getting restless.

I didn’t take my camera (I often don’t when I don’t know the venue’s door-search policies), and my friend Ila was made to put hers in the cloakroom, so I have no pics to post or link to, I’m afraid. so I’ll decorate this review with a shot of Neko – on safari, by the look of it – that I swiped from a press kit. I’m good to you…

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