I heard about this show two days before it took place. I had already been surprised by how much I liked their brand-new album, and even though I also saw a show the night before, this seemed like too good and rare of an opportunity to pass up.
Venue: The Long Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 August 2016
Opening Act: Andy Shauf
01. Atomic Number
01. Atomic Number
02. Honey and Smoke
03. Song for Judee
05. Blue Fires
06. Greens of June
07. Down I-5
08. 1000 Miles Away
09. I Can See Your Tracks [Laura Veirs song]
10. Margaret vs. Pauline [Neko Case song]
11. Helpless [Neil Young cover; lead vocals by k.d. lang]
12. Super Moon
13. July Flame [Laura Veirs song]
14. Sorrow Nevermore [k.d. lang song]
15. Man [Neko Case song]
16. Georgia Stars
17. Best Kept Secret
18. Hold On, Hold On [Neko Case song]
19. Constant Craving [k.d. lang song]
20. People Have the Power [Patti Smith cover]
21. I Want to Be Here
The show started with Andy Shauf playing slow, heavy, doom-laden chords on an electric guitar while mostly hidden in the dark. His rhythm didn't change when he started singing, nor when his band unobtrusively joined in. The drummer restrained himself with a tiny, tight kit. The bassist played as few notes as possible. The keyboardist was the only musician to really stretch out his sound, but his actual parts were still rather plain. I was expecting Shauf to take a big lead, or to open up his voice, but neither happened.
After the first overlong song finally came to an abrupt end, Shauf loosened up a bit, but the basic pattern didn't change. Shauf stuck to rhythm guitar, which he was quite good with, but the music was often left without melody or even much character. Most of the songs were fairly downbeat, there weren't really any solos or lead parts, and most of the songs ended with an unfinished feeling. Shauf seemed a bit awkward, yet managed to come off somewhat humorous, which was at least something of a counterpoint to the music. While he may be a decent songwriter, his vocals were unspectacular and the music never quite took off.
When Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs came out, they lined up in an ellipse and launched into the opening track of their new collaborative album, case/lang/veirs. They continued in a run of songs all from the new album, initially following the tracklisting but increasingly diverging as they went along. As the opening of the album is quite strong, the performance started on a high note, but right about the point at which the album starts to lose its focus, the live performance kept up the energy by introducing songs from the various members' solo work. With the addition of each other's backing vocals, these older songs blended in reasonably well and brought an extra degree of audience adulation.
The three principles seemed genuinely thrilled to be on stage together, joking with each other and supporting each other's efforts. Veirs was a bit less at ease than the other two; Case and lang took the stage with natural grace. However, Veirs was also the one playing guitar on just about every song, while Case only played guitar for a few songs, and lang only took a banjo for "Sorrow Nevermore". Their backing band carried the songs through, but rarely took the spotlight. Guitarist Johnny Sangster and keyboardist/trombonist Steve Moore both took a few brief solos, but filled most of the sonic spectrum underneath the vocals. (Both occasionally sang into microphones, but I never could discern their contributions.) Drummer Barbara Gruske and bassist Lex Price were both solid performers as well.
[Veirs, lang, and Case.]
The three singers share some common ground, such as some country leanings, but they have fairly distinct styles. Lang is probably the most popular (certainly the punters indicated as much), and her songs were accordingly the most straightforwardly pop-oriented. She also has the best voice of the three, which she used to her full ability. Case is something of an indie rock icon, known for her casual style, unclear lyrics, and strong vocals. Veirs is the one I know least about, but her approach seemed more rooted in folk music. While she too possesses a good voice, she unfortunately wielded it in a slightly affected manner. However, it would be entirely unfair to label her a weak link, especially considering that she wrote or cowrote every song on the album. (Of the fourteen tracks, four are credited to all three, two to Case and Veirs, four to lang and Veirs, and four to Veirs alone.)
These variations of sound and style did not detract from the performance, but rather enhanced it. It felt like I was getting the best of several worlds all at once, and excellent vocal harmonies on top of it all. Almost every song was a well-crafted effort of songwriting, honed for accessible appeal yet possessing emotional depth. The lyrics were good, the singing was superb, and the musicianship irreproachable.
"Helpless" may be a somewhat melodramatic song, but it remains one of Neil Young's classics and I can't help but like it. This trio's take was based on fellow Canadian k.d. lang's cover, starting with a unique bassline, gradually building up lang's vocals, and eventually introducing Case and Veirs' CSN-like harmonies. This song was one of the first that really excited the crowd, and the next to do so was lang's "Sorrow Nevermore". Before the latter, she invited the audience to approach the stage. This was readily obliged, particularly after she described her banjo as a "chick magnet".
[Veirs, Case, and lang on banjo.]
Both encores went over well, although I was surprised that Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" didn't receive the same level of apparent appreciation as "Helpless" or some of lang and Case's songs. I've always been a big Smith fan, and she seems to have a reasonably sized fanbase, but I can never tell who actually likes her and who doesn't. Anyway, the singers split up each verse into thirds for each to sing one of, and they all joined in for the big chorus. They took the anthemic nature of the original and made the most of it. The final number, "I Want to Be Here", was also a showcase for the collaborative vocal efforts of the trio.
Veirs mentioned at one point that this was probably a one-off project and a unique tour unlikely to be repeated. It felt like something special, and it was a lucky experience to see three such talented people in a room together all at once. They managed the rare feat of building off each other's strengths and making something better than the sum of their parts.
Andy Shauf: C
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