Neko Case at House of Blues, 1/26/2014

Neko Case, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down House of Blues January 26, 2014

Her fans from other parts of the country will have to have to ask Neko Case what a "Houston Grammy" is sometime. Hopefully she'll remember that one herself.

According to the rangy singer, who is arguably as well-known for her flaming red hair as her keen songwriting or that soul-piercing voice -- actually, it's hard to choose between the three, nor should anyone try -- "you have to pay a municipal fine" if you get a Houston Grammy. It was part of the frequently off-color banter between Case and backup singer/comic foil Kelly Hogan, stemming from an exchange where a fan wished her luck at the Grammys and she told them she had already lost. It was to Vampire Weekend, for the record, but in this crowd's eyes she might as well have been Beyonce.

Not that she needed to, but Case might have been going out of her way to please her fans in a city that hadn't laid eyes on her for some four years and change. She was chipper and talkative all evening, breaking into Billy Squier while stalling for time during some minor technical fix, and become so effusive in her praise of her drummer she probably embarrassed the poor fellow. (He deserved it, of course.) Then there were her skeleton pants, which more or less spoke for themselves except for when Case referred to herself as "skull-crotch."

Of course she did find the time to sing a tune or two. Many were from the album that got her with an eyelash of that Grammy, last year's The Worse I Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. A sense of foreboding pervades many of her songs, even relative rockers like "Bracing for Sunday." "Local Girl," meanwhile, is no less scornful for its trebly guitar and glockenspiel. Pitting the follies of human nature against music that often verges on the sublime is what gets Case nominated for Grammys, but they can't all be noirish tales like "Red Tide" or jangle-pop whirlwinds like "City Swans."

One of the prettiest songs of the night, out of many, was the delicate and muted "Calling Card," a simple tribute to her band. But the showstopper was the very first song from Case's Furnace Room Lullaby from 2000, "Set Out Running." All she does in that one is stare down heartbreak cold, like sweating out an especially nasty case of the DTs. Live, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

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A set of that length, 90 minutes including encore, really only needs one or two time-stopping moments like that. Not too many singers can quiet a room to an absolute whisper by going a cappella the way she can, especially House of Blues. But the distilled heartache of "I Wish I Was the Moon" is so pure that it's hard to think about anything else.

To make up (somewhat) for being away for so long, Case even gave us a bonus encore, "Star Witness." While the evening l the way at the back of the hall by the bathrooms, a solitary couple danced all the way at the back of the hall by the restrooms. Even from halfway across the room, it was obvious they oblivious to anything in the world beside themselves, and her.

So, How Was the Opener: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down offered more to recommend the Washington, D.C. band than just that impossible-to-forget name. Their bubbly, electro-laced indie-pop is sometimes too quirky by half but not without its charms, hinting at country and doo-wop in appealing ways while remaining thoroughly modern. Good stuff.

Personal Bias: My cat's name is Neko. Long story as to how that came about, but Ms. Case is the reason it's spelled the way it is.

The Crowd: NPR-ish couples. Lots of black-frame eyeglasses. Judging by their hair, a few people who had possibly just rolled out of bed.

Overheard In the Crowd: "I would wear the hell out of those pants" -- Suffers lead singer Kam Franklin, who happened to be our tablemate.

Random Notebook Dump: Wonder if we'll get another New Pornographers record anytime soon.


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