It was a quaint coincidence that a cold front moved through Houston on Thursday, as the gale force that was Neko Case also rolled into town for a well-received show at White Oak Music Hall to promote her latest, critically acclaimed album, Hell On.
Case came out at 9:15 pm, after an intimate opening set by Toronto’s Jennifer Castle, and proceeded to play an hour and 45 minutes. She and her six bandmates concentrated heavily on the new record, but they sprinkled the set with old favorites harkening all the way back to her 2002 album, Blacklisted.
The crowd was mostly comprised of 30 to 50-year-olds, in other words, those who probably followed her career from her work in the Canadian supergroup, The New Pornographers, and the start of her solo work in the early-aughts. And while the venue was only three-fourths full, the audience held onto her ever word throughout the night.
The singer, her mane of frizzed red hair pairing nicely with her skeleton leggings and glow-in-the-dark neon orange manicure, kicked off the set with the one-two punch of “Pitch or Honey” and “Last Lion of Albion,” harmonizing beautifully with her two back-up singers, her powerful voice always at the forefront.
Standouts of the set that elicited applause included “Maybe Sparrow” from the excellent 2006 album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, showcasing Case’s powerful vocals, which along with her alt-country bent, reminded us of a slightly more baritone June Carter Cash. “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” from the aforementioned Blacklisted was another similar example of full-throated heroics from the indie siren.
Delightful inter-band banter between songs kept the evening lively, especially an ongoing gag involving Case’s sound tech boyfriend Jeff, and an impromptu birthday celebration of guitar/slide guitarist Jon Rauhouse, who Case joked was 40 years despite being alive during World War I. The road crew later brought out a cake from Houston bakery, Fluff, for Rauhouse and one of her backing singers, who both shared the same birth date, the crowd spontaneously busting out into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Most of Case’s catalog consists of mid-tempo numbers, and if there is anything critical to say about the set, it meant the show dragged in its middle portion. But Case and her band picked it up later on, especially with the set closers, the gorgeous “Hold On” from Fox Confessor… and the straight-forward indie blast of “Man” from 2013’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which could have easily substituted for a New Pornographers jam.
Things especially got going at the end of the encore with the rocking banger “Loretta” from 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken and the perfect closer of “Ragtime” from The Worse Things Get…
One of the more memorable events from the evening didn’t have anything to do with the music. The venue upheld a strict, always controversial, no cell-phone policy, warning attendees twice before even entering the venue that anyone caught even looking at their devices would be removed from the building. Those in the smoking section outside before the show joked that we could “spend $85 on Vegas bombs and talk through the whole thing, but you better not use your phone.”
Unfortunately, for some unlucky souls, no doubt addicted to their screens like the rest of us, found out staff was very serious about enforcing said policy, getting the heave-ho before the encore even started. It should be stated here, this wasn’t the venue’s fault — cell phone bans almost always come from the artist management, and witnessing this drew sympathy for both parties.
Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue for most of the audience as they soaked in Case’s charisma, immersing themselves in her unique arrangements, poetic lyrical storytelling, witty banter, and sometimes dark soundscapes. In other words, it was a treat to have her in Houston, well worth the trip through the blustery conditions outside to witness the swell of talent onstage.
“Pitch or Honey”
“Last Lion of Albion”
“Deep Red Bells”
“Margaret vs. Pauline”
“Curse of the I‐5 Corridor”
“Oracle of the Maritimes”
“Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)”
“This Tornado Loves You”
“Halls of Sarah”
“Hold On, Hold On”
“That Teenage Feeling”