Neko Case, Mavis Staples captivating at Hideout

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A few thousand people enjoying a lovely late-summer evening is not the ideal moment to sing an a cappella lament about a family tragedy. But Neko Case pulled it off Friday at the Hideout Block Party and A.V. Fest.

In the song, the narrator witnesses a mother saying hurtful things to her child at a bus stop. The vignette moves from shock to anger to empathy, a meditation on resilience. Case leaned into the microphone and told the story without fuss or tears, shaded by Kelly Hogan’s harmonies.

It was a bold move, and much of the chatty crowd quieted long enough to savor it. Case gave each song exactly what it needed, honing in on small moments rather than indulging in bombast. Her voice pierced the night with its emotional transparency, and Hogan was her foil. Case trilled the high notes on “Hold On, Hold On” while Hogan’s harmony slid underneath. They sang counterpoint melody lines that softened the accusatory lyrics in “Local Girl” and burrowed into the plaintive heart of “Night Still Comes.”

Much like the vocalists, the undulating guitars of Eric Bachmann and Jon Rauhouse wove in, out and around each other. The rhythm section left plenty of room for everyone, a three-dimensional space in which the songs could expand and contract as needed. Frequently, Case telescoped things down to just the sound of her voice, delivering drama by playing it small. On “Wild Creatures,” the band fell away as she came to a landing. “There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me,” she sang, a quietly devastating reflection on the mother and grandmother she’d lost in recent years. 

There was no hint of maudlin in this performance, though, despite the despair that entangles some of the songs. Case is a quirky pop songwriter, but her attitude is defined by the unflinching delivery of mountain-soul music, hard country and punk. “You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you,” she declared while bashing her guitar so hard it’s a wonder it didn’t bust a string.

Case said she was dedicating “every song” to Mavis Staples, the 74-year-old Chicago gospel matriarch who preceded her on stage. Staples hobbled after recently undergoing knee surgery, but she was in a feisty mood.

Her current band is designed to evoke the approach taken by her family, the Staple Singers, in its ‘60s and ‘70s prime: gospel quartet vocals and a guitar-bass-drums rhythm section. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom channeled Mavis’ late father, Pops Staples, with his sparse, swampy tone. The backing vocalists included her sister Yvonne, and their harmonies were accented by syncopated handclaps that suggested a church choir in full swing.

Staples surveyed her career, reaching back to the civil-rights anthem “Freedom Highway” and paying tribute to her late friend Levon Helm with a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” Slapping her chest, the singer demanded, “Put the load, put the load, put the load right on me.” She’s made the song her own in recent years, and on this night she sang like she wasn’t giving it up anytime soon even while waving her walking cane.

greg@gregkot.com   

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The Grammys 2011