Neko Case’s concert downtown on the water behind the World Financial Center Thursday night started late. Early in the set she explained gracefully. “Your sexy energy has created a Ghostbusters situation up here. Everything electric has stopped working, so we’ll be” – she searched for a split second for the word – “Apocalyptic.” Case’s stage monitors had blown out (or weren’t properly hooked up – what exactly happened, nobody seemed to know) before she ever took the stage. Were they even working as veteran soul man Charles Bradley, who preceded Case onstage, strained and strained to hit the notes throughout his set? Maybe not. Although visibly exasperated at being unable to hear much if any of themselves onstage, Case and her bandmates improvised as the show went on, switched out electric guitars for acoustic ones, changed the set list on the fly and in the process played a transcendent show. Case – “the girl with the amazing notes” as she sardonically but accurately described herself – warned the crowd that she was going to hit a few bad ones. “Oh no, I start this one,” she griped and then launched into a version of Wish I Was the Moon that she ended up hitting over the moon and whatever comes after that with some stratospheric highs to match those of harmony singer Kelly Hogan.
As riveting a chanteuse as Case is – like Paula Carino but with more range – she couldn’t do what she does without a brilliant band and that’s what this one was: John Rauhouse moving between pedal steel, guitar and banjo, Paul Rigby on guitar, Tom V. Ray on upright and electric bass and Kurt Dahl on drums. Case pulled out her gorgeous white Gibson SG tenor guitar for a couple of songs, taking a brief solo during a matter-of-factly chilling version of The Tigers Have Spoken that she obviously couldn’t hear, anxiously looking to Hogan for reassurance that she’d pulled it off. Hogan nodded approvingly and then playfully flipped her the bird after she’d finished – although Hogan delivered plenty of her own casually spine-tingling moments with that maple sugar voice of hers. It’s the perfect complement to Case’s quietly seething, nonchalantly sultry menace: the two are the ultimate noir vocal ensemble.
Case likes short songs, and that’s what most of the set was. She and Hogan held onto Teenage Feeling, defiantly trailing out the end of the chorus and thrilled the crowd with a torchily bittersweet Maybe Sparrow. By the time they hit the maneater chorus of People Got a Lotta Nerve, it was clear from the visuals if not the audio that there were sonic problems onstage. That didn’t stop Case from her guitar solo and all kinds of chilling nuance on The Tigers Have Spoken: “If he wanted to remember,” Case half-spoke, coldly sotto voce, for the caged beast in anyone who’d “lived that way forever” before being gunned down. Favorite, another audience favorite, was as sarcastically noir as expected, with an outro lit up by some practically Middle Eastern chromatics from the electric guitars. Ray bounced his bow off his strings for some scary overtones on a brisk, biting take of the bluegrass-flavored escape anthem Things That Scare Me and did the same later on a haunting, dirgey take of Knock Loud, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Randi Russo catalog.
Margaret vs. Pauline was all understated rage over gorgeously noir sonics; Hold On, Hold On, “co-written with the Sadies of Canada,” took on a towering, anthemic, Steve Wynn-style angst maxed out by the jangly reverb of Rigby and Rauhouse. Hogan cranked a music box and timed it perfectly to the vocals during a surprisingly creepy take of Middle Cyclone, which they followed with a pulsing new song with distant Velvet Underground echoes, Hogan explaining that it was “about dating your dad who turns about to be your mom.” The most tender place in Case’s heart is for strangers, so she suggested that audience members imagine her holding them to ease the darkness of the lyrics. Shortly after a lusciously lurid, bitter, harmony-driven Star Witness, they encored with Don’t Forget Me, Rigby taking centerstage with a tersely acidic, sostenuto noiserock solo. It was transcendent in every sense of the word for both band and audience: despite the sonic snafus, nobody was about to forget this one.
A word about Bradley – his vocals aren’t usually ragged like they were this time, probably the result of touring and trying to overdo it since he may not have been able to hear himself over the band. Who were stupendously good: from a distance, this Daptone crew looked a lot like the guys who usually back Sharon Jones. They were a time trip back to 1967 in the best possible way: nobody overplayed, the organ purred, the bass was smooth but sinewy, the horns punched in and then disappeared in a split second and the guitarist showed off expert command of every good, useful, emotionally vivid lick from that era. Bradley has been playing on and off at Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg lately: if oldschool soul music is your thing, he’s worth seeing – unlike the lame, cliched, kitschy Delaney & Bonnie wannabes who opened the show.