Every album from alt-country chanteuse Neko Case begs a question: Why isn't this the sound of modern country music? Her twangy vocals and emotional resonance evoke the spirit of country's grand dames of yesteryear, particularly Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, but ultimately Case is not a classic country musician. And if she is, it's more along the lines of Emmylou Harris or even early kd lang. Case functions miles from FM radio country and its modern purveyors; Martina McBride she's not when it comes to record sales.
That's a shame, because her show at the Roxy on Saturday proved she's one of the more engaging musicians making alt-country these days. Backed by the Sadies, her longtime collaborators and friends, Case opened with "Favorite," from her new album, "The Tigers Have Spoken." It was a spectacular display of vocal range; she sent her voice soaring until it hit the middle of a note, sustained it, and then shot it up one more octave.
Case was practically seething on "If You Knew," a spirited slap in the face to a woman who had stolen her boyfriend.
She tousled her coppery mane of long hair and sang, "If you knew what I know/ You wouldn't go to see her/ And least of all believe her/ When she says that she wants you/ You're just another puppet." At this point, it was hard to imagine anyone leaving Case for another.
Case is beloved for her tear-in-my-beer laments to love, and she played up that distinction with plenty of such songs. Awash in gauzy pedal steel and slow-churning accompaniment, "Hex" was a throwback to the old countrypolitan sound pioneered by crooners such as Patsy Cline. It was the most haunting barroom ballad of the evening, though Case's heartrending take on the Band's "Evangeline" nearly trumped it.
When she wasn't weeping into the microphone, Case played loud and fast. "Train From Kansas City" sounded like the best song the Ronettes never recorded, with Case matching the Sadies' fervent guitar licks with her own tambourine shaking. A bouncy, full-throttle rendition of Loretta Lynn's "Rated X" was a natural fit, since Case had sounded like her for much of the performance.
With her encore, Case said, she felt a little daunted to sing a song made famous by a Boston band. In this case, it was the Nervous Eaters' "Loretta," and Case and Co. had enough verve to make it work.
Without Case, though, the Sadies weren't as successful in their opening set. Veering randomly from jaunty surf rock to overwrought Charlie Daniels-esque Southern fiddle jams, they seemed too sporadic. Visqueen, the other opening band, fared better with its set of taut, pop-punk songs delivered by spunky frontwoman Rachel Flotard.