Touring musicians with multiple albums always face a dilemma: How much should you play of the new stuff vs. the songs the audiences expects to hear. In many cases, the biggest hits are confined to the last two to three songs or the encores. Some groups have such deep catalogues that it’s impossible to hear everything you want in a single show. And some just eschew the hits all together, not caring if they alienate the audience.
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 Theater. 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.
After opener Margaret Glaspy ended her set, Case opened with “Pitch or Honey,” which ironically closes out the new album. She came back with “Last Lion of Albion,” the first single that explores ecofeminist themes, then shifted to “Deep Red Bells” from Blacklisted. That was 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.