It was looking pretty ominous halfway through Iron & Wine's set at the Sasquatch music festival last May. Out beyond the stage, just up the Columbia River, above the ragged canyon walls, grey clouds bunched together in an approaching offensive, turning black. Rain began to fall, lightly at first.
By the time Neko Case emerged -- in black pants and sleeveless black shirt, her fiery red hair glowing -- it was getting positively biblical out there. The ink-wash clouds had the place surrounded. The temperature dropped. But then Case stepped up to the mic and belted her first note. Her voice -- huge, bellowed, billowing -- cut through the wind and rain and rang off the top of the Gorge. Tens of thousands of Northwesterners, packed into the bottom of the Gorge, roared. The rain picked up. A guy in the crowd with tights on his head, arms outstretched, went, "Wa ba ba ba ba ba!"
The heavier the rain fell, the louder and more excited the crowd got, the bigger Case's voice seemed to grow. Then, three songs into her set, the hail started to fall. The throng erupted. It was explosive, a thunderous collision of cold fronts and melody and Coors-fueled fervor. In the middle of "Star Witness," one of the most rousing songs from her new record, Case accepted a coat flung over her shoulders by a roadie, then triumphantly discarded it. The hail turned the size of marbles. Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. Every face in the pit seemed to register the same sentiment: a wide-eyed "Can you believe this?"
You couldn't have booked a better headliner for an old-fashioned Northwest thunderstorm. Though Neko Case and her band were forced to abandon the stage after three songs when the hail got apocalyptic (sending thousands scrambling and shutting down the festival for more than an hour), there was something eerily perfect about those three songs.
It may have had something to do with her local roots. Once the hailstorm subsided, she sauntered back on stage and thanked a shivering but adrenalized crowd for not letting the storm get them down, for being "f---ing Washingtonians."
Case herself was born in Virginia but was raised in Tacoma, a city she'd celebrate on 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby with the song "Thrice All-American" ("It's a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound / Well the factories churn and the timbers all cut down / And life goes by slow in Tacoma"), but which she'd abandon as a teenager for Vancouver, B.C. It was there, as an art school student, that she fell into music, drumming and singing in a handful of punk bands. It was also there that she realized she wasn't a punk musician, when the songs she started to write didn't quite fit the genre's ratta-tat-tat, two-minute format.
In 1997, she released The Virginian on Bloodshot Records. The first five seconds give you a fair taste of the whole record. Pedal steel. Boot-scoot electric guitar. And a hollering voice that could take the shaker off a rattlesnake. Largely comprised of cover material (Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Queen), it won her scores of comparisons to country greats like Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson.
If The Virginian was cut-and-dried country, though, Case's career since has been anything but. In 2000, she released three records as part of three different entities. The Other Women, a bunch of live duets with Carolyn Mark, was recorded under the name "The Corn Sisters." Then Case rocked out with Vancouver indie powerhouse the New Pornographers on their debut record, Mass Romantic. Though she doesn't always tour with them, she has remained, at least, a vital part of the band's recording identity.
Last, and most important, she released Furnace Room Lullaby, her second full-length solo work -- which, though very nearly as country as The Virginian, shows the beginning of what music critics like to call her "country noir" tendencies. Whether the label stemmed more from the album's cover image -- of Case lying apparently dead on a concrete floor -- or from her dark, often cryptic lyrics, remains unclear.
Case continued to mine those murky waters on subsequent albums (especially in the very creepy "Deep Red Bells," from 2002's Blacklisted, a song about the infamous Green River Killer), but never so profoundly -- or successfully -- as on her latest release, last year's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. A tangle of highly literate and often puzzling lyrics, the songs on Fox Confessor rarely emerge from the minor keys. Rhymes are infrequent. The structure of almost every one is broken and unorthodox, almost unrecognizable.
Case's lyrics don't exactly inspire warm, fuzzy feelings, either. The disc's opener, "Margaret vs. Pauline," traces the parallel lives of two girls, one of whom lives in blissful ignorance while the other fights for survival: "Two girls ride the blue line / Two girls walk down the same street / One left her sweater sittin' on the train / The other lost three fingers at the cannery / Everything's so easy for Pauline."
Nor are they easily accessible. "Dirty Knife" tells the story of a bunch of people in her family who all went crazy at the same time, shutting themselves inside and burning their furniture for firewood. At least that's what she told an interviewer for The Onion's A.V. Room last May. You wouldn't necessarily have known that from the lyrics themselves. Case says she likes to leave just enough space in each song to allow for interpretation on the listener's part.
Dark metaphors, broken rhymes, minor keys. It's not exactly a recipe for pop success. Nonetheless, Fox Confessor was -- justly -- one of 2006's biggest indie hits. The record was judged the best of the year by critics at Amazon.com and the second-best by NPR listeners.
The key, of course, is Neko Case's resplendent voice, which seems to make emotional sense out of the most tangled song. Even if it takes you a few dozen listens to unravel the story line in "Star Witness" -- a series of anecdotes about watching a fatal gang shooting in front of Case's home in Chicago -- her pipes alone offer enough sonic nourishment that it doesn't even matter. A week, a month, a year down the road, that melody will unfurl and you'll suddenly get what she's saying -- just as you're falling asleep, or reaching for the phone, or shivering in a hail storm.
Neko Case and Merle Haggard at the INB Performing Arts Center on Monday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $38-$48. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.