Published Sep 25, 2018During an encore rendition of the noir country ballad "Hell-On," Neko Case and backing vocalist Shelley Short punctuated the song's ominous breakdown by unleashing a high-pitched, elongated shriek. It was a strange and striking harmony that rightfully earned a roar of appreciation from the crowd, and it stood out as a wonderfully daring moment in a night that was otherwise pretty but perhaps a little too restrained.
There was no questioning the musicianship onstage. With an elegant blend of traditional country instrumentation (banjo, pedal steel) and electrified rock muscle — not to mention Case's powerfully soaring vocals — the singer and her band tastefully recreated the rich arrangements of this year's Hell-On.
But the pacing was amiss from the get-go, as the ensemble began with the moody, minor key "Pitch or Honey." That song works nicely as Hell-On's closing track, but as a set opener, it was atmospheric rather than authoritative. That was typical of the setlist, which was heavy on ballads and took a while to pick up steam.
There's nothing wrong with moody ballads, but any momentum was repeatedly interrupted when the musicians changed instruments between every song. Case's banter was amicable, but with incessant jokes about a sick bandmate who was absent and repeated lamentations about how long it had been since she last played Toronto, far too much of the night was devoted to forgettable chatter. The visuals didn't help much, since the backdrop was unflatteringly decorated with a few brown lumps that appeared to simulate wasp nests.
Things finally picked up towards the end of the near-two-hour set. "Man" was explosion of noisy rock energy with a defiant empowered message, a cover of Nervous Eaters' "Loretta" was a rockabilly scorcher, and "Ragtime" swelled from an easygoing chug to a crunchy crescendo. With their raw energy, these tunes ended the night on a blistering high, serving as a reminder of just how impassioned Case's brilliant songs can be.
If the headliners never quite cut loose, the same cannot be said for opener Thao Nguyen, who performed without her usual backing band the Get Down Stay Down. Even though she appeared solo, this was anything but a demure singer-songwriter set: whether concocting skronky loops, thrashing away on a banjo, or attacking her guitar during cacophonous solos, she injected enough dynamics into her performance to earn mid-song whoops from the earlybird audience.