In the next 10 days, three women singers of roots-inspired Americana come through the Seattle area — Alison Krauss and Union Station play Friday, July 8, at Marymoor Park; Neko Case is at Seattle's Paramount Theatre July 10; and Gillian Welch plays the Moore Theatre July 13. All three are singularly focused, each in her...
In the next 10 days three women singers of roots-inspired Americana come through the Seattle area. And while some might pigeonhole Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Neko Case as a “women’s club” within the genre, these artists are noteworthy for many reasons beyond their gender.
All three are singularly focused, each in her own way. They have also enjoyed mainstream success, with hit records and critical acclaim, though touring remains the central part of their careers. And all three are much loved in the Northwest — particularly Neko Case, who hails from Tacoma.
Any show by Case is a welcome occasion, particularly one at the Paramount, where she plays July 10. She says she never enters the hall without thinking about the scene in the movie “Frances,” in which Seattle actress Frances Farmer returns to the theater for a movie premier, years after having worked there as an usher.
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“She tells the MC lady to ‘piss off,’ ” says Case by email from the road, “because she had been mean to her before she was famous.”
Case has no skeletons backstage at the Paramount, but the Northwest is littered with early memories. She played her first-ever show at Bob’s Java Jive in Tacoma, the roadside landmark shaped like a coffeepot.
“I was scared out of my wits,” she recalls. “Thank God for beer.”
That was in the early ’90s. Since her 1997 debut album, “The Virginian,” Case has only returned to play Tacoma once, two years ago at the Pantages Theater.
“It was very emotional,” she says. “I was weepy onstage, and I can only hope I was halfway successful at hiding it. I was so scared and moved.”
Case rarely looks unnerved onstage, and often seems a bit aloof. That persona is a perfect fit for her melancholy ballads, which usually tend more toward torch songs than pop anthems and are more rock than country. Like many great singers, she has the ability to make a song be many things to many listeners.
Case was less self-assured in her early Northwest shows, when she often told stories about her youth (“too many frank confessions to the audience,” she says now). Over time she shifted some of that raw emotion into her autobiographical songs. Her most recent album, “Middle Cyclone,” touched thematically on the difficulty of human connection. It wasn’t exactly about heartache, but there was often an aching and mournfulness in the way she sang.
Case’s stage presence is less remote in her offshoot projects, like the Corn Sisters, where she was part of a duo (they recorded one album in Ballard’s Hattie’s Hat). Her ongoing work with the New Pornographers finds her as part of an eight-member band exploring more straight-ahead indie rock.
Being in two bands and touring most of the year illustrates Case’s hard-work ethic, perhaps what you’d expect from someone who grew up in working-class Tacoma.
Despite her Northwest history, she still finds it difficult sometimes to come home.
“I have a harder time relaxing onstage here than I used to, which is odd,” she says. “I think it’s because this place means so much to me, that it feels like I’m trying to score the winning goal in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup every time I play.”
She left Seattle before fame, and broke through in Vancouver, B.C., which has led some to believe she has bad feelings about her home region. She says that’s partially untrue, and that audiences here were always supportive. But she does home in on a few things — like high rent.
“I was someone who worked in the kitchen of a restaurant, and was in two bands [but] I couldn’t afford to live in Seattle if I wanted to, which I did,” she says.
Case was also offended to see state tourism ads mention the arts in an era when she felt there was no government support for artists.
And she was annoyed by what she calls “the 2 million new residents” who complained about the weather.
“It’s Washington,” she says, “famous for rain.”
Though Case no longer calls this region home (and mostly lives on the road), Washington is now famous — even to some of those new residents — as the place that launched her from Bob’s Java Jive to the world.
Case hasn’t made an album in two years, but Alison Krauss released her 14th in April, called “Paper Airplane.” With new songs like “Dust Bowl Children” and her beautiful take on Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” it has become one of her fastest selling discs, and her first ever to debut at the top of the Billboard country-albums chart. Krauss is also known to the rock world for her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, “Raising Sand.”
Though her music with Union Station is traditional bluegrass, she has always been embraced by country radio, which often leans toward more produced country rock. There have been a couple of personnel changes over the years in Union Station, but it’s always top-notch, so expect a stellar live show Friday at Marymoor Park.
Gillian Welch is also touring behind a new album, “The Harrow & The Harvest.” The record came out last week and is her first in eight years. It finds Welch and longtime cohort David Rawlings exploring the same stripped down folk as her earlier releases, and doing it brilliantly. You might not be able to see Civil War battlefields from the stage of the Moore, where Welch plays July 13, but you’ll certainly be able to imagine them if she sings songs like “Down Along the Dixie Line.”
Welch’s last album had more full band orchestrations. This one is a return to the bare sound of her first few releases, with her voice as the dominant feature of every song. As always, Rawlings is a very capable foil, and their harmonies on “Hard Times” are chilling. Welch has produced some extraordinary music over the past two decades. “Hard Times” might be her single best song, which is saying a lot.