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Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Wolf Trap, September 9, 2022

Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Wolf Trap, September 9, 2022
September 20, 2022 02:28PM
Neko Case and Patty Griffin
September 9, 2022

It takes a lot for me to be willing to go out to the suburbs on a workday, but a double bill of Neko Case and Patty Griffin is enough to justify it. Also, it turns out that my particular demographic of forty-something liberal white professionals has a strong overlap with the Neko/Patty fanbase, so I knew a lot of friends who had tickets, and my wife and I were able to carpool. Honestly, the ability to carpool has a strong determining influence over my willingness to see suburban gigs.

Both Patty Griffin and Neko Case are artists with whom I have a very long history. I got Patty Griffin's first album, the exquisitely intimate Living With Ghosts, in 1997, and saw her on tour with the much more aggressively rock-oriented Flaming Red in late 1998. I saw Neko Case first in a solo set in a small club in Portland around 2001, and with the New Pornographers and in larger venues regularly throughout the middle 2000s before I burnt out on her live show a bit after seeing it too many times. (I did however keep seeing the New Pornographers.)

Now, of course, both artists have vastly larger back catalogues, and have evolved their artistry substantially. Between her solo work and collaborations, Neko Case in particular has emerged as one of the most meaningful artists in my stacks, with an increasingly mature, idiosyncratic lyrical voice and compositional skills that have moved well beyond her alt-country roots to explore an open-ended American music that is gothic and dramatic, and songs that explore the tortured relationship between humanity (and male America, in particular) and our abused environment.

Under a magnificent full moon in perfect early autumn weather, Patty Griffin opened the show on guitar and piano, with just David Pulkingham backing her on fingerpicked acoustic and tasteful electric soloing. In the course of her 13-song setlist (she wasn’t really the opening act; this was billed as a dual-headlining show) she mostly pulled from recent material, omitting all of Living With Ghosts and only doing the title track from Flaming Red and “Be Careful” from 1000 Kisses. Since those were her first three records, and the only three I own, I was a bit at a loss for much of her setlist, five songs of which came from the self-titled Patty Griffin record, which came out in 2019, and won a Folk Music Grammy, but of which I was entirely unfamiliar.

Latter-period Patty Griffin songs veer toward the emphatic and reassuring; she had a long fight with breast cancer from which her eponymous record marked her recovery. “Servant of Love” is the heartfelt commitment to try to work for love in a broken world. I found the set a bit enervating, to be honest, compared to my lasting affection to her early work. She does have room for dark humor, like “Bluebeard,” but much of the vibe of her show was one of consolation and connection, an empathy that was sweet but a bit thin?

With the full moon high in the sky, both Griffin and Case found room for lunar songs; Griffin had “250,000 Miles,” approximately the distance between the Earth and moon, and Case of course kicked off her set with “I Wish I Was the Moon,” from the landmark Blacklisted record (from which she also had “Deep Red Bells” and “Lady Pilot”). The Case setlist was powerful demonstration of the strength of her songwriting and arrangements; no one has ever doubted the sheer compelling power of her singing, but as Case repeatedly amplifies on Twitter and elsewhere, she is a producer. She produces music, as a writer, arranger, lyricist, and of course singer, of in great quality and variety, and pulls from sources far more disparate than her early roots. She was once a punk rock drummer in Vancouver, and her music is unafraid of influences that a more traditionalist songwriter might eschew — spiraling melodies without obvious choruses, gloomy murderous themes (“Deep Red Bells”), and covers of the grandiose art-rock of Sparks (“Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”) and the ambiguous gloomy strum of the Go-Betweens (“The Devil’s Eye”). 

I happen to love all of Neko Case’s back catalogue, and I’m on record (and audio) raving about the 2018 album Hell-On in addition to some of her recognized milestone records. The Wolf Trap show covered a lot of ground similar to the “greatest hits” album Wild Creatures which was released a few months ago with essays from supportive artists like Margo Price, New Pornographer bandmate Dan Bejar, and unexpected fans like Mayim Bialik, Shirley Manson, and David Byrne. What I enjoyed was that she dismissed some of her brasher songs (“Man”) and the early hits (“Thrice All American”) to wrestle with some of the knottier songs and themes, most of which circled around the long overarching thread of Case’s lyrical vision.

It’s not a secret that the bulk of Case’s career has been spent thinking and singing about the profoundly dysfunctional ways in which humans engage with wildlife and the environment, which in Case’s contention, is primarily a male dysfunction. In addition to the obvious song selections (“This Tornado Loves You,” “Last Lion of Albion,” “I’m an Animal,” the Sparks cover), Case has a whole new writing project focused on the relationship with nature. And on a glorious night of temperate autumn weather under a full moon, in a National Park named after trapping wolves, that theme was not far away from Case’s mind either, as she ruminated between songs about patriarchy and the destruction of women’s rights and the planet.

Of course, Case also can sing an opening lyric that sucks the air from an amphitheater, like “Childless widow of a nation, You cry like guns across the water,” from Hell-On’s “Halls of Sarah.” And the material from Fox Confessor Brings the Floor got a strong showcase, with the baroque, jazz-influenced lament of sisterly resentment “Margaret vs. Pauline” and the true-crime storytelling of “Star Witness.”

It was a masterful performance overall, and it surely overshadowed Patty Griffin’s set, although Case was hugely complimentary of Griffin as a songwriter and inspiration. (The double-billing was the result of rescheduling; I believe it may have been the only time the two were scheduled to play on the same bill, although there were no collaborations.) 

Fascinatingly, a good portion of the New Pornographers were joining Case as her backing band: A.C. (Carl) Newman played lead guitar, and Pornographers touring drummers and backing guitarists were present. Of course, there were no New Pornos songs; it would not have fit the aesthetic of Case’s solo shows. But having seen Case twice on the New Pornographers anniversary shows in February, I felt the solo show offered an insightful view into Case’s gifts as a singer and artist: When she performs as a New Pornographer, Case sings with the subtlety and elegance of being caught in the jet wash of an 777; she is simply an unstoppable force. As a composer and lyricist, she gives herself a great deal more room to stretch in her own material as a vocalist, from croons to cries to a full-throated wail. 

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 09/20/2022 02:34PM by zwirnm.
Re: Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Wolf Trap, September 9, 2022
September 21, 2022 10:32AM
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Re: Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Wolf Trap, September 9, 2022
September 21, 2022 03:34PM
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Re: Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Wolf Trap, September 9, 2022
September 22, 2022 12:22PM
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