The last time Neko Case performed at Red Butte Garden, she had a chance encounter with nature that felt like, in her own words, something straight out of The Jungle Book. Before her performance, Case and her band explored the gardens and happened upon a rattlesnake. Later that day, the group learned from Red Butte staff, the same snake appeared again as a group of kids on a field trip goggled at a nest of adorable swallows near a pond. The snake slithered to the nest, the children watched in anticipation and the rattlesnake immediately ate every single bird. The band kept going back to see the snake, who was now triumphantly perched by the empty nest.
Case recounted the story, laughing at the image of tiny birds “peeping away inside his fat little body,” between songs at her return to Red Butte Garden on Sunday. She even dedicated a song to this memorable snake, appropriately called “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” The anecdote, a brutal, darkly funny illustration of the cycle of life, even sounds like it could come from a Case song—her lyrics often contain animal metaphors and vivid descriptions of the natural world.
It’s hard to imagine a venue more appropriate for Case than Red Butte Garden’s Outdoor Amphitheatre. Not only is Case fascinated with the wilderness’ unforgiving beauty, but her titanic voice is a force of nature unto itself. Onstage surrounded by mountains, Case’s vocals filled the space with visceral power, often with an assist from her band. (Case said that the haunting harmonies in her song “Halls of Sarah” “would not be possible without awesome singers,” pointing to her bandmates.) Her most startling vocals came early in the concert. At the climax of “Hell-On,” the title track of her latest album, Case ditched the recorded version’s quiet howl and unleashed a primal, cathartic yell. It lasted for a seemingly impossible length of time, stretching the contours of her unhinged, beautiful voice. In this moment, Case made good on the promise of the song’s lyrics: “I am not a mess/ I am a wilderness.”
Case’s gripping voice carried through the entire setlist, which featured six tracks from Hell-On, other favorites from her two-decade-plus solo career and covers of diverse artists including Crooked Fingers, Roky Erickson and Catherine Irwin. Fans were lucky that the concert happened at all—after a Saturday show in Reno, Case’s tour bus broke down. The band took a last-minute flight and, thanks to some quick thinking from the Red Butte crew, the concert went off without a hitch. After a stressful weekend, Case was more than a little sleep-deprived, and her loopy humor was a needed antidote to her frequently dark music. In between songs, there were plenty of friendly jabs about Reno after the band’s misadventures. Throughout the night, she offered scattered thank yous before eventually expressing gratitude to all of SLC: “we owe you fucking big time Salt Lake City,” she said.
The concert opened with a set by A.C. Newman, Case’s New Pornographers bandmate. (Newman also performed in Case’s band after his own performance.) Even compared to Case’s simple staging, Newman’s setup was spare: just him and one additional guitarist. He performed stripped-back versions of his solo material—his latest album, Shut Down the Streets, was released in 2012—and some favorites from the New Pornographers. (“We are popular in certain circles,” he said drily.) Openers have a thankless job, even when the artists’ fan bases have significant overlap, and compared to the raw energy of Case’s performance, Newman’s casual, quiet arrangements felt underwhelming. Still, Newman’s good-natured vibe, mixed with some self-deprecating humor, set the night’s casual, friendly tone. “We’re just playing with our friend Neko,” he said before starting his performance, and the intimacy between the artists was always clear.
The concert ended with a performance of one of Case’s most popular songs, “I Wish I Was the Moon” from Blacklisted. By the time she got to the song’s post-chorus: “I’m so tired/ I wish I was the moon tonight,” she burst into uncontrollable laughter. The sleep-deprivation finally seemed to catch up to her—the repetition of “I’m so tired” was almost too on-the-nose for the situation—and Case explained that, once again, she couldn’t stop thinking about the rattlesnake. Hopefully by the next time Case comes to Red Butte, she will have written the snake a song of his own.