- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ever since the fall elections, touring acts have made a point to gloat good-naturedly over the results for Washington audiences. A shout-out to the new administration has thus far proved a reliable applause line with hipster fans, as effective as a Ben’s Chili Bowl name-check or a well-timed shout of “Hello, Cleveland!”

During her Wednesday night gig at the 9:30 Club, singer-songwriter Neko Case took that trope to the next level: She introduced Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who took the stage and made a brief appeal about the virtues of a career in teaching for the sellout crowd.

Of course, fans don’t go to a Neko Case show for fresh-faced idealism.

The spooky, downbeat indie chanteuse has made a brilliant career singing of marginal lives, doomed lovers and despairing zoo animals. The audience was hushed to the point of reverence. At one point, shushing was heard when the band was tuning up, prompting backing vocalist Kelly Hogan to reassure the crowd that it was permissible to speak between songs. The comic, occasionally giddy interplay between Miss Case and her touring sidekick, Miss Hogan, is one of the delights of a Neko Case show, especially because it lightens the mood between songs.

Miss Case is on the road in support of her new album, “Middle Cyclone.” The disc accounted for 11 of the 19 songs performed at Wednesday’s show, which also featured a few well-known numbers from earlier discs and a few deeper cuts, including “Knock Loud” from the 2001 EP “Canadian Amp,” to close the show.

By the very high standards one applies to Miss Case, it was a good show, but uneven in parts and lacking momentum. Her performance of the grueling and introspective “Middle Cyclone” was the high point of the evening, made more poignant by Miss Hogan’s performance cranking the music box. The music box played notes on a paper strip, like a player piano, and the paper looked as if it might feed through the rotors and flutter to the ground before the song ended.

Piano figures prominently on the new album — cascading forcefully on some tracks, tinkling in the background on others. There’s no keyboard in Miss Case’s current touring band, but pedal-steel player Jon Rauhouse picked up an electric 12-string for several key numbers, including a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” that was recorded with six pianos. The effect is to create intimacy where the recording was cavernous and forbidding.

Mr. Rauhouse’s scorching pedal-steel solos were added to several songs on the set list, including “I Wish I Was the Moon” and “Fever.” By contrast, the rest of the band was fairly subdued musically to leave space for Miss Case’s vocals. Barry Mirochnick drummed largely with steel brushes, and when he picked up a pair of mallets for the raucous “Knock Loud,” it was a bit of a shock. Guitarist Paul Rigby seemed content to stay in the background.

Miss Case herself switched between a beat-up acoustic and her vintage Gibson SG — both four-string tenor guitars — but she seemed most engaged when she simply stood and sang.

Neko Case concludes her two-night stand Thursday evening at the 9:30 Club. The show is sold out, but will be carried live via Web cast on NPR.org along with a set from opening act Okkervil River, starting at about 8:15 p.m.

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