Poor Red Butte. After cancelling their popular summer Outdoor Concert Series last summer, organizers and fans hoped for a back-to-normal season in 2021. This seemed within reach just a couple of months ago, but, as we all know by now, the Delta variant had other plans. As case numbers rise, many artists are requiring masks or vaccines for attendance, moving to outdoor venues or ditching performances entirely. Earlier this week, Counting Crows cancelled their planned concert at Red Butte because the venue, which is part of the publicly supported University of Utah, cannot legally enforce mask or vaccine requirements. It was a reminder that, even as musicians and fans desperately want to return to live music, the reality is still complicated.
There will hopefully be no last-minute change of plans for Red Butte’s next concert. This Sunday, Neko Case will take the stage with special guest A.C. Newman. The pair have recorded and performed together for more than 20 years as members of the indie rock collective the New Pornographers. Newman will open the show and perform in Case’s backing band.
Case has earned acclaim and devoted fans for idiosyncratic music that defies easy categorization. Her earliest albums recreated old-school country and Americana, but since her 2002 breakthrough Blacklisted, Case has blended indie folk, alternative rock and power pop into her ever-evolving sound. As a songwriter, she is just as likely to experiment with opaque character studies or unexpected commentary as she is to pull directly from her own life experiences. Take her song “This Tornado Loves You,” from Middle Cyclone, a bizarrely sweet love song from the perspective of a literal tornado. Or there’s “Man,” her winking, unusual exploration of gender identity from The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…, that begins with “I’m a man/ That’s what you raised me to be/ I’m not an identity crisis/ This was planned.”
Case’s lyrics often describe harrowing personal experiences and heartbreak, but even—or especially—when writing about difficult subject matter, she retains a sly sense of humor. On the strange cover for her most recent solo album, Hell-On, Case wears a headpiece made of fake cigarettes, her hair on fire as she looks away. (The album was written after Case’s Vermont home burned down, though she says any connection between the real-life tragedy and the cover photo is a coincidence.) This playfulness carries through her lyrics too. On “I’m From Nowhere” from her album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…, she sings “I was surprised when you called me a lady/ ‘Cause I’m still not so sure that that’s what I wanna be/ ‘Cause I remember the 80s/ And I remember its puffy sleeves.”
And then, of course, there’s her voice. One critic called it a “moonbeam … imposing in timbre, opalescent in tone and always surprising in its sheer force.” People tend to wax poetic about Case’s muscular, striking contralto, which can be just as difficult to pin down as her songwriting. Her distinctive vocals are often noted for their visceral power, but Case is just as comfortable going quiet with a simple, beautiful melody, like on Blacklisted’s “I Wish I Was the Moon,” perhaps her most well-known song. “I never knew where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do with my voice,” she says, “but I just wanted to do it so bad.”
Though Case is well established as a solo artist, she is also recognized for her work with other musicians. In her early career, she performed with a backing band as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, and in 2016 she released an album with fellow singer-songwriters k.d. lang and Laura Veirs. Her best known collaboration is with the New Pornographers; both she and Newman have been with the supergroup since its founding in 1997. Newman is generally considered the group’s leader—he has been the chief songwriter and lead vocalist on the Pornographers’ eight critically acclaimed albums, most recently 2019’s In the Morse Code of Break Lights. His most recent solo project, Shut Down the Streets, was released in 2012. The album combines the pop sensibility he honed with the New Pornographers with punk-inspired songwriting. “I felt the need to be more clear in the lyrics on this album than ever before,” he says. “Not worry so much about the poetry of it. It felt like the message really had to be clear.”
Neko Case and A.C. Newman will perform at Red Butte Garden Ampitheatre on Sunday, Aug. 29. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the Outdoor Concert Series website. See the full Red Butte summer lineup and Salt Lake’s guide on how to Red Butte.