On a recent evening at the 9:30 Club, that venerable music venue in Washington, D.C., a petite woman stepped onto the stage before a sold-out crowd. Her look was casual — comfortable-looking boots, black jeans and top, with her fiery red hair pulled back from her face. This was no soft-spoken, indie folk singer though — one who could lull you to sleep with a soft, barely audible soundtrack. Neko Case, who some critics say is in possession of one of the greatest voices of her generation, belts out tunes so clearly and purely that it’s debatable whether she needs a microphone to be heard.
Performing in Washington for two nights as part of a 34-city tour for her new album, “Middle Cyclone,” Case won over the crowd early by introducing with obvious pleasure a surprise guest: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Case spoke about the importance of a good education and the need for more teachers and tutors, an issue with which she’s long been involved. The politically savvy D.C. crowd ate it up, and for the rest of the evening, she had the crowd in her hands. Not that she needed help.
Case, who also performs with the band The New Pornographers, has created a sort of musical niche for herself as a multi-hyphenated singer: alt-country, indie-rock, blues-folk. But when it comes down to it, you come to hear her voice. Her tonal reach was mesmerizing. Her voice was sometimes wispy, sometimes booming; it was teasing, pleading, it was tough, it was soft, and it was always in control. Her tight five-piece band, including the excellent backup singer Kelly Hogan, was the perfect frame for Case and her songs, which are about the usual topics of love, loss, pain and joy. With Case’s voice, the usual is transcendent. So entranced by her voice, the audience was silent between two early songs. That’s a crowd of 1,200. Silent.
To hear for yourself, listen to “People Got a Lotta Nerve” from “Middle Cyclone”:
You can also check out her recent appearance on Tavis Smiley here.
Case has six albums in all, and most of that night’s set came from songs from “Middle Cyclone,” “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” (2006) and “Blacklisted” (2002). Her tour runs through June.