- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Toby Keith and Faith Hill might be the current face of country music, but their polished sound is leagues away from the rural twang that gave birth to the genre. That’s where Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark come into the picture.

They are three singers in what some have dubbed the “insurgent country” scene, challenging the mainstream Nashville sound with the energy of punk rock. That might explain, in part, why they wrap up a tour together Sunday at the Black Cat, a club better known for screeching electric guitars than steel pedal ones.

The three women have worked together in numerous collaborations over the years, including last year’s tribute album to Robert Altman’s film “Nashville.” But the three have also carved out rather successful solo careers for themselves.

Miss Case has the most name recognition, due to the increasing praise that has followed each of her three solo albums. Though she was born in Alexandria (and called her first album “The Virginian”), Miss Case has moved around so much in her life that she can hardly be considered a local. After years of playing in various bands throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada, Miss Case went out on her own in 1997, though she has continued to collaborate with other artists.

She sings with Miss Mark in a band called the Corn Sisters and with the Canadian group the New Pornographers. The Pornographers’ name is a bit misleading, as the group’s music is not dirty, but rather light, bouncy rock music that acts as a counterweight to Miss Case’s more thoughtful, moody country ballads.

She perfected that moodiness on her last album, 2002’s “Blacklisted,” which sounds like a 3 a.m. last call at the kind of honky tonk bars Hank Williams used to frequent.

No less beautiful is the sweet croon of her partner in the Corn Sisters, Miss Mark. They have only put out one album together under that moniker, 2000’s “The Other Women,” recorded live at a concert in Seattle. It’s a shame, as the live energy and rough-and-tumble sounds there would be well worth capturing again.

In 2002 Miss Mark not only spearheaded the “Nashville” tribute, but released her second solo album “Terrible Hostess,” which mixed up torch songs with more rollicking country numbers.

Last, but certainly not least, is Miss Hogan, who has been praised in recent years for her ability to perform such a wide range of material. In shows, she’s been known to cover indie rock groups like the Magnetic Fields alongside tunes by the Statler Brothers and Randy Newman.

She started her music career in a more rock-oriented direction, most notably with the Rock*A*Teens, but soon passed that up for a life of country crooning. On her last album, 2001’s “Because It Feel Good,” it sounds like her voice could have been a contemporary of Patsy Cline’s the way it confidently delivers on lovelorn ballads.

Though the three women have known each other for years, they’ve never actually performed together as a group.

“We all travel so much,” explains Miss Hogan via cell phone prior to a show in Chicago. “We just really wanted to have some time to hang out.”

The three split up their sets evenly, tackling each other’s signature songs with three-point harmonies. It’s worked so well that there’s talk of putting out a live album and of possibly hitting the road again in the future.

For Miss Hogan’s part, she couldn’t have asked for a better way to reunite with old friends and entertain fans in the process.

“It’s been the most I’ve laughed in years,” she says. “I would definitely do it again.”

This current show, which promises plenty of harmonizing amid a laid-back atmosphere, should appeal to both old-time country fans and the typical Black Cat crowd that might be wary of anything involving a banjo.

• • •

If the thought of crowding into a club during the summer swelter has you feeling faint, why not head over to Fort Reno at 7:15 p.m. tonight for a open-air triple bill that’s free to boot?

The Fort Reno concert series, which continues to be one of the best music bargains around, offers free music on Mondays and Thursday all summer long near the Tenleytown Metro station.

The bill is subject to change and weather can cancel a show, but every night is all ages. Alcohol is banned and the music is played outdoors instead of in a cramped concert hall. Check out French Toast, the Deep Six and Velvet tonight and visit www.fortreno.com for the rest of the summer schedule. It keeps money in the pocketbook and gives local artists a chance to get some recognition. Not a bad deal, at all.

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