Neko Case couldn’t make it to the radio station and Jim DeRogatis, rock-music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of SoundOpinions, wasn’t pleased: “All of a sudden she’s too good to come. We made her what she is today.”
In the Navy Pier offices of Chicago Public Radio, six of the eight New Pornographers were taping a piece soon to go out over the airwaves. Only Dan Bejar and Case didn’t show, though they were both somewhere in Chicago, resting between two consecutive sold-out nights at the Metro. Nobody expected Bejar to be in the city, but DeRogatis attributed Case’s absence to arrogance. It wasn’t the first time someone has tagged the singer/songwriter with that label.
Fast-forward nine hours. It’s 11 p.m. and British opener Emma Pollock has just left the Metro stage to respectable applause. With the volume pumped, it proved difficult to distinguish one word from the next, twisting Pollock’s lyrics into an indecipherable mess. The applause, however, seemed warranted. Pollock’s voice filled the room with an eerie, deep resonance. Bouncing off the walls and filling the cavernous room, the words refused to be dampened by the energetic, 1,100-strong audience. They surrounded everyone.
But she’s gone now, and the Metro staff shuffles around the stage, moving guitars and testing speakers. Two workers pause to arrange the two main microphones: One in the center and one pushed off to the side? No. Both near the center and facing inwards, sharing the middle of the stage.
The lights cut and everyone is temporarily blinded by a flashing, white sign hanging over the back of the stage: NEW PORNOGRAPHERS. After two opening acts, the entire Canadian crew takes the crowded stage. Neko Case is alongside A.C. Newman at the front. While Newman tunes his electric and Dan Bejar—the third-most-talked-about member—flits with a wooden recorder at far stage left, Case stands tall and swings her head intermittently, tossing the red hair out of her face. She will remain in that position for the majority of the night. Even when Newman leaves the stage to give Bejar space to stumble and sing—always with a plastic Solo cup full of beer in one hand—Case will stand proud. She doesn’t play anything except the tambourine and she didn’t contribute any writing to the band’s latest LP, Challengers. She is arrogant. And the crowd loves it. When she begins to belt her lyrics into her microphone, even the ones she forgets and has to write down (“Bones of an Idol”), mouths are open: Everyone is either singing along or stunned at the crystalline precision of her voice.
With a set list of equal parts Challengers and past material, Newman leads his crew through the older songs that showcase Case’s vocals, notably “Letter from an Occupant” and “The Bleeding Heart Show.” Case has a much smaller role on the new LP, but the young and talented Kathryn Calder, Newman’s niece and keyboardist for the band, rises to the challenge. Calder’s performance on “Adventures in Solitude” as the set draws to a close brings the majority of the band to tears, Newman noted, and it wet more than a few eyes in the audience as well.