Touring on her excellent new album, "Hell-On," the Northwest indie-rock great is at the top of her game.
It was only a second, but it felt like forever. As the opening notes to “Look for Me (I’ll be Around)” chimed in, Neko Case lingered on her first words, like a desperado turned jazz singer, giving the familiar song off 2002’s “Blacklisted” an added tension.
Such is the subtle power of Case, one of the Northwest’s great songwriters, who was back in her home state for a packed Paramount Theatre show Thursday. It was Case’s first Seattle date since releasing her excellent “Hell-On” in June, days after gently rocking the Gorge Amphitheatre during Sasquatch! The revered indie rocker, an architect of compelling yet cryptic narratives, has long been known for her wry lyrics. But with “Hell-On,” Case has climbed a new peak, delivering a gripping album stuffed with some of her sharpest writing yet.
Midway through her enrapturing set, Case eased into “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” — the new record’s most quotable track, featuring Mark Lanegan — with an a capella verse that left the hushed theater hanging with anticipation for each subsequent line. “In the current of your life, I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes,” she sang with hindsight’s wisdom and life experience. Two songs later, Case held her arresting high notes on another “Hell-On” standout, the forcefully haunting “Oracle of the Maritimes,” each one freezing you like a spotlight from across a prison yard.
For all the stop-you-in-your-tracks suspense, Case kept the mood lighthearted, playfully bantering with her six-piece backing band about internet cows and the difference between women and men (which we probably shouldn’t repeat). As homecomings go (technically she counts Tacoma as her hometown), it was more of a great-to-see-ya fondness than some of the other more sentimental or damn near giddy shows from a few of our region’s other stars this year. “It’s such a lovely, lovely pleasure to play for your home” crowd, Case professed after performing punked-up alt-country ripper “Man.”
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Though much of her set was culled from the new album — including the ’60s pop-swinging “Bad Luck,” the vocals for which were recorded the morning after her Vermont barn burned down — Case drew equally from the earlier half of her deep, rich catalog. Fan favorite “Maybe Sparrow” won over the salt-and-pepper crowd, many of whom have likely been with Case for the long haul, from the opening title lyric of the banjo-laced alt-country tune.
Much like opener Destroyer — aka Neko’s New Pornographers mate Dan Bejar, who started the night with a lovely solo acoustic set — Case and her band moved quickly, cranking through 22 songs in roughly 90 minutes.
In one particularly sweet moment during the encore, Case paused after her “deep cut” punk-a-billy cover of Nervous Hands’ “Loretta” to recognize her “Twitter friend,” who was apparently in attendance. Evidently, Case had seen a picture the fan posted of her mother, who is battling cancer, walking. “You tell your mom that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Case said.
From there, Case cruised through a pair of favorites, a triumphantly marching “Ragtime” and “This Tornado Loves You,” the latter’s carefree swing getting fans on their feet. It was a warm night with a consistently great artist, clearly at the top of her game.