Monday, April 20th, 2009
This Tornado Loves You
Neko Case and Crooked Fingers at Trinity-St Paul's in Toronto
Frank YangIt was the sort of pairing that seemed so perfect, that the reality almost seemed fated to disappoint. Two nights of Neko Case at Trinty-St Paul’s church, arguably the city’s best combination of intimacy and acoustics, in support of her new record Middle Cyclone – her first shows in Toronto in over three years. And to sweeten the deal, if that were at all possible, the support act would be Crooked Fingers. Was there any way it could meet these loftiest of expectations? In a word, yes. In two words, hell yes.
This was Eric Bachmann and company’s second visit to town in the past little while, following their October 2008 support slot for Okkervil River, and while I obviously have no shortage of love for the artists who bring Crooked Fingers on the road with them, there’s a small voice in the back of my head that cries out at the unfairness of an artist of the calibre and longevity as Bachmann still having to open up for others. In a just world, he would be playing his songs of gorgeous, wistful gruffness in beautiful church venues to rapt audiences… which, I guess, he just did.
I’d commented in my review of the Phoenix show that their set suffered from poor mixing – this show more than made up for that, being acoustically sublime and with songs perfectly selected from the entire Crooked Fingers discography (as well as Bachmann’s 2006 solo record To The Races) to suit the setting. Put simply, they delivered a set of staggering beauty, and one that didn’t go unappreciated by the audience who, presumably, were not nearly all as huge fans coming in as I was. Each song finished to enthusiastic applause that was far from just polite, but more akin to the sound of hearts simultaneously melting, breaking and being won over. It’s difficult to pick a high point from a set so flawless, but “Sleep All Summer” would have to be it, with Bachmann and Miranda Brown dueting over weepy steel lines contributed by guesting Neko guitarist Jon Rauhouse. Tears would not have been out of place.
And this was just the opener.
In all the times I’ve seen Neko Case live, she’s taken a decidedly dressed-down approach to stage attire so a double-take was in order when she strode onstage in a stunning red gown. As if we needed another indication that this show was an occasion. But even glammed up, Neko was still Neko, yukking it up with backing singer/comic foil Kelly Hogan and, oh yes, singing like an absolute force of nature.
Having debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts, Middle Cyclone is unquestionably a breakout record for Neko Case. But artistically, it’s not the huge leap forward that Fox Confessor was – that record took Case, the alt.country torch singer, and reinvented her as a superb and restlessly creative songwriter whom you could certainly still classify as country if you had to file her somewhere, but whose reach and vision went far beyond just the genre. Cyclone reaffirms this while delivering some of Case’s purest pop moments outside The New Pornographers and while it hasn’t supplanted Fox Confessor‘s special place in my heart, it’s still a superb record in its own right.
And damn, does it sound glorious live. If you’ve never heard Neko Case sing live, then you haven’t experienced one of the seven musical wonders of the world (a list I just made up and whose other six spots are open to nomination). I had thought that experiencing it from a couple feet away in a tiny club like the Rivoli would be an unbeatable experience, but seated in the gallery at Trinity whilst being enveloped by her voice wins. Backed by the stellar band with whom she recorded Middle Cyclone and in front of a screen displaying projected films matched to each song, Case was spellbinding in delivering songs old and new to the packed house, some of whom – like myself – I’m willing to bet hadn’t set foot in a church in many years in any religious context but on this evening, when faced with a talent as unearthly as Case’s, were finding God.
Following an hour-long set, Case returned for an extended encore that, had the fans had their way would have never ended but as it was, ran the show to a good 90 minutes. And as undeniably special as the whole performance was, they managed to take it just that little bit further when Garth Hudson joined them on accordion for the final two songs. A fitting finale to an unbelievable night of music. And if you were one of the many who weren’t able to get tickets to the show, take heart – Neko announced during the show that they’d be returning in July for another show at Massey Hall. No, the Old Lady of Shuter Street isn’t as intimate as Trinity, but it’s hosted a good show or two in its time. Expect even more magic.
Photos: Neko Case, Crooked Fingers @ Trinity-St. Paul’s – April 18, 2009
MP3: Neko Case – “Middle Cyclone”
MP3: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
MP3: Neko Case – “Hold On, Hold On”
MP3: Neko Case – “Star Witness”
MP3: Neko Case – “If You Knew”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Phony Revolutions”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Call To Love”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Big Darkness”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Devil’s Train”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “New Drink For The Old Drunk”
MP3: Eric Bachmann – “Lonesome Warrior”
MP3: Eric Bachmann – “Carrboro Woman”
Video: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
Video: Neko Case – “Maybe Sparrow”
Video: Neko Case – “Furnace Room Lullabye”
Video: Crooked Fingers – “Let’s Not Pretend (To Be New Men)”
Video: Crooked Fingers – “New Drink For The Old Drunk”
Video: Eric Bachmann – “Man O’War”
Video: Eric Bachmann – “Lonesome Warrior”
MySpace: Neko Case
MySpace: Crooked Fingers
Toronto has been waiting some time for Fleet Foxes to come back to town. Their only appearance so far was a year ago at the El Mocambo as support for Blitzen Trapper, just before their buzz meter went through the roof, and while well-attended it wasn’t nearly a sell-out. They were supposed to return as support for Stephen Malkmus at the Phoenix in July but cancelled due to exhaustion and haven’t made up the date, being far too busy topping almost every critic’s year-end list for 2008. The point of this ramble being that I’ve been playing a little game with myself trying to guess what size room they’ll play if/when they finally did return and, well, let’s just say the winning venue had never even crossed my mind. Fleet Foxes at Massey Hall in August. Yeah, seriously. Details still forthcoming, but wrap your head around that. There’s interviews with the band at The Times-Standard and The Times.
Spin talks to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy about their new album – still title-less and release date-less – and Washington City Paper talks to the folks who put out the just-released Ashes Of American Flags DVD. Locals may note that there’s no Toronto on their just-announced Summer tour, but note that the July 19 date at Lewiston, New York is barely 90 minutes away if you’re one of those speed limit-observing types, just across the border north of Niagara Falls. So you can go, like, outlet shopping and then Wilco watching on the same day. Something to consider.
Iron & Wine will release their double-disc compilation of rarities Around The Well, on May 19 and SubPop has wisely chosen “The Trapeze Swinger” as the MP3 to provide gratis to generate interest. Wisely, because this song which originally appeared on the soundtrack for the 2004 Topher Grace vehicle (you’ll not likely ever hear THOSE words again), In Good Company is one of Sam Beam’s greatest musical creations and really, one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in the past, well, maybe ever.
I think I’m all out of adjectives for the day.