"I'm psychedelically sick right now."
By offering this warning to a packed, sweaty House of Blues Wednesday night, Neko Case made a futile attempt to downplay expectations for her headlining set. Bands get sick on the road all the time—it happens. In 2002, I watched Death Cab for Cutie play a set after frontman Ben Gibbard had "projectile vomited," as his bandmates described. And in 2006, I saw Ryan Adams sustain a head injury onstage, which didn't actually prevent him from finishing his set; he merely sopped up the blood with a towel and kept on trucking.
Case, thankfully, wasn't stricken with either of those ailments, but rather a head cold—the kind of viral villain that can stop a dynamic voice like hers dead in its tracks. Thankfully, it didn't. Though the slight drop in register led her to joke that she "get(s) to be the man tonight," her superhuman pipes sounded as mighty as ever.
Backed by a dynamite band that included vocalist Kelly Hogan, guitarist Eric Bachmann—also of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf—and some gents with wild, woolly facial hair, Case drove an 18-song set of material that spanned her 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby (just one track, "Set Out Running") to her latest, The Worse It Gets, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, which provided the heaviest amount of material to the set list.
Fun as it was to hear the hits—among them "Hold On, Hold On," "Deep Red Bells" and "This Tornado Loves You"—there was an instant-classic feel to much of her new material that made them stand out among a set stacked with highlights. Much of this came thanks to the dual-vocal duties of Case and Hogan, whose harmonies on "Night Still Comes," and "ba-da-da" substitute for a horn section in "Ragtime," sounded sublime in person.
In the end, Case's cold proved little match for a voice as strong as hers, though a lozenge and some tea would probably go a long way toward keeping it that way.