Each move is risky. If the Rolling Stones play anything recorded post 1981, for example, you can bet many in the audience will be clogging the bathrooms or standing in the beer line while waiting for the umpteenth version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” When Steve Earle hears calls for “Copperhead Road,” he gives the audience a look that could cut glass.
Neko Case has found a great balance and has stuck with it during a long tour for her latest album, 2018’s Hell-On. Working with a six-piece ensemble, Case has a 24-song setlist that mixes her best-loved material with the songs from the new album, which may be her strongest yet.
Case played 10 of Hell-On’s 12 songs during two shows recently at the Lincoln Theatre. Recorded abroad with her usual variety of musicians and influences, the album captures Case’s trademark mix of sophisticated and at times ethereal lyrics with influences of rock, pop, alt-country, punk and rockabilly.
Opening with “Pitch or Honey,” which ironically closes out the album, Case came back with “Last Lion of Albion,” the first single that explores ecofeminist themes. She then came back with “Deep Red Bells” from Blacklisted, followed by “City Swans” from the winner of 2013’s longest album title — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood took center stage for two songs, “Margaret vs. Pauline” and the sublime “Maybe Sparrow” before Case returned to the warm and country-tinged “Calling Cards” from The Worse Things Get.
At this point, Case takes a risk with five consecutive songs from Hell-On: the beautiful “Winnie,” the stomping good time of “Bad Luck,” “Cure of the I-5 Corridor,” “Gumball Blue,” and “Oracle of the Maritimes.” She then threw in two covers — Catherine Irwin’s “Hex,” and Sarah Vaughan’s “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” that Case recorded on Blacklisted.
Case’s new material is so strong that the audience sat rapt during the Hell-On songs, but — no surprise — the biggest cheers were for some of the older material. “Hold On, Hold On,” the third of four songs from Fox Confessor, and “Man,” from The Worse Things Get, closed the show on a high note before a five-song encore.
That encore started with the title track from the new album and ended with a cover of the Nervous Eaters’ “Loretta” and “Ragtime” from The Worse Things Get. It helped that her band was both versatile, and after touring for the better part of a year, in sync throughout.
That band is one reason I hope someone is chronicling this tour and that we can get a live release from Case. While the atmospheric qualities of her songs come through loud and clear in the studio, the new material especially takes on a different quality in a live setting. If you get a chance to see this tour when it comes to your town, don’t miss it.
Also worth spotlighting is Margaret Glaspy, Case’s opener on this leg of the tour. Playing a fender guitar solo for almost an hour, Glaspy mixed a variety of styles — think Nirvana meets the Delta blues — while performing songs from her 2016 album Emotions and Math and the 2018 EP Born Yesterday. Especially noteworthy were the crunchy “You and I” from the former and the ethereal pop of “Before We Get Together” from the EP. Glaspy also did a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” that she should consider recording in the studio.