A drizzly grey Monday twilight, but the warm light of the Spiegeltent is beckoning as an infectiously enamoured audience welcomes alt-country balladeer, Neko Case, and her band to its intimate stage to get lost in her first album for 5 years, Hell-On.
It is a perfect venue at the Auckland Arts Festival for Neko Case's modern fairy tales. Its mirrored walls hold its warmth and secrets within, or as Case says on first track Pitch or Honey, “light reflected is many times stronger”. Yes, there’s a real sense of occasion and specialness in the tent tonight.
The audience, gazing at Case’s self-confessed spider’s-web-frizzy hair, ignore her invitation to talk to each other between songs. They’re too invested and treat each song like an event, watching their minstrel elaborate her stories with swinging hips, lovely poise at a slightly high mic and deft tambourine action.
Wily Jon Rauhouse teeters on the stage edge, working his console steel - or as Case affectionately calls it, his “sewing machine” while back-singer Rachel Flotard completes the flying geese formation at the front of the stage.
An all-together 6-piece band [introduced kookily by Case like a cannibalistic buffet “he’s a tartare situation”] slickly glide from song to song. Well-trodden walking bass and well-loved chord progressions give a lot of this set foot-tappin’ singability - actually knowing the words or not doesn’t matter as there’s some really fun lar-lar-lar variations.
The chaotic-ness of nature, such a lyrical part of Case’s cannon, is also encapsulated in the sounds tonight. From the toms, that frequently sound like moths trapped in light fittings, to Case’s guitar solo in Case of the I-5 Corridor, which sounds like corrugated iron reverberating in thunder. It’s awesome to close your eyes and listen to... away in a different world entirely.
And then, of course, there are Case’s lyrics. It’s great, despite the often 4-guitar backing, to be able to hear these so purely tonight. They hold Grimm-esque imagery of nature as both giving and taking away. The bird’s “drowning diving” on Maybe Sparrow, or the “cry like guns across the water” on Halls of Sarah. Case’s voice carries up to the roof of the Spiegeltent, which is like a giant velvet gramophone bell, absorbing and amplifying it.
The band provide a twanging of rich country guitar and delectable, reverberant harmonies, especially on the Brill Building-y Bad Luck. I smile. And it stays during dalliances of Brel-like musical, when the familiar is augmented with jazzier pauses and snatches of sheer lyrical brilliance “In the current of your life / I was an eyelash in your shipping lane”.
A quick encore, ending with acknowledgement of recent events in New Zealand and promising that the world “gives a shit”. Case and her band finished on Ragtime, with its warming refrain, “Don’t you worry... we’ll be seeing you”. An uplifting, grin-inducing gig for burdened minds.