Review + Photography by John Bentley

It’s a privilege to catch talented American singer-songwriter Neko Case at her sold-out Leeds gig, one of only two UK dates on the current tour. Neko Case has certainly led a life in music, as a solo artist, as a member of several bands (notably The New Pornographers) and also as a serial collaborator (The Sadies, The Corn Sisters, Calexico and most recently as a member of ‘supergroup’ Case/Lang/Viers).

Neko Case Leeds Brudenell Social Club

It seems rather incongruous that Scottish singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph is the support act tonight, as her mesmerising presence on stage suggests that she really should be the main attraction. She is a complex artist who has won considerable critical acclaim with her albums ‘Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled’ (2015) and ‘From When I Wake the Want Is’ (2018). The titles of those albums in themselves tell you a lot about her and her music. Joseph has gone through some personal traumas and her music reflects it. “Tell my lover it’s not over until we drown”, she chillingly sings, accompanying herself with repetitive phrases on a piano.

With a quavering voice reminiscent of Joanna Newsom, her emotion and otherworldliness seem to be intensified playing solo on the stage and you could hear a pin drop in the hushed hall. As she plays she doesn’t look down at the keys but locks the audience in a stare. Her songs all seem to end suddenly, as if the words mean everything and musical embellishment is not required. But she does have a sense of humour: “Sorry I’m not such a laugh”, she apologises. Then after ‘Mountain’, a key song in her repertoire, she tells us that, being so drunk in Dublin the previous night, she forgot to play the song. Her straightforwardness, humanity and honesty easily win the audience over.

Kathryn Joseph Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Neko Case defines her own style, having feet in both the indie rock and alt-country camps. In particular her 2002 album ‘Blacklisted’ developed her distinctive ‘alt-country-noir’ style. Since then she has released a string of acclaimed albums, notably ‘Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’ (2006). Tonight’s set dips into a range of her work, with the emphasis on her latest album, ‘Hell-On’. She has said that this is a ‘poppier’ album than previous, but it still deals with some heavy personal and world issues, including gender, the environment and politics and it features a range of guests, including k.d. lang and Mark Lanegan.

Neko is accompanied on stage by a six piece band of superb musicians and it has to be said that the sound quality in the hall is first class, doing justice to her voice and all the individual instruments. In fact the performance really is a revelation about just how excellent her voice is, in its range, purity and expression. The music is subtle and superbly arranged. The musicians play sparingly, never putting in an unnecessary note and they know exactly when to leave a silence.

Neko Case Leeds Brudenell Social Club

It’s difficult to choose highlights from the diverse and generous 22 song setlist.  There’s the country-ish ‘Deep Red Bells’ (from ‘Blacklisted’), where her voice soars and we get some neat steel guitar playing from long-term collaborator Jon Rauhouse. New song ‘Winnie’ demonstrates the quality of her songwriting and thoughtful lyrics (“I want to be your sailor’s tattoo”) and has great harmony singing. The catchy ‘Hold On, Hold On’ sounds very indie rock with five jangly electric guitars strumming together. Meanwhile ‘Loretta’ is a fast rocker, with a great opening and closing drum roll.

Neko and the band are in good humour and repeatedly heap praise on Leeds and the quality of the pies served at the venue. There’s a moment of drama during ‘Halls of Sarah’, when an audience member is taken ill and the band stop playing while things are sorted. They are professionals and take it all in their stride, but it is typical of the close connection maintained with the audience throughout the evening.

Neko Case Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Neko Case Setlist: Pitch or Honey; Last Lion of Albion; Deep Red Balls; Winnie; Maybe Sparrow; Margaret vs. Pauline; Calling Cards; Bad Luck; Curse of the 1-5 Corridor; Gumball Blue; Oracle of the Maritime; Hex; Look for Me (I’ll Be Around); Halls of Sarah; Dirty Diamond; Hold On, Hold On; Man. Encore: Hell-On; The Pharoahs; Loretta; Ragtime; This Tornado Loves You.

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