case/lang/veirs. Denver Botanic Gardens. 07.10.16
July 10th, 2016 was a hot day in Denver, Colorado. Brutally hot. The blazing sun scorched the asphalt on York Street, while the informed ‘friends’ of the Botanic Gardens lounged in regulation folding chairs. Sipping cold drinks under the relative comfort of large umbrellas, the faithful formed the majority of a line that stretched from the main entrance all the way to Cheeseman Park. Those of us who had never attended the Summer Concert Series before (and were too lazy to read the FAQs on the website), could be found shaking our sweat-soaked heads five blocks away; cursing ourselves for our flagrant lack of preparation. Fortunately for those who of us who didn’t have the foresight to show up early, the Botanic Gardens has yet to adopt the TSA-style security found at many venues around the city. Even with all the picnic baskets and coolers, the line all but disappeared mere minutes after the gates were opened at 5:45pm. Unfortunately for us slackers, there wasn’t a single swath of unoccupied grass in front of the stage once we got in.
The sunken amphitheater is a beautiful little postage-stamp of land in the middle of the majestic gardens, but the in-the-round layout provides difficult viewing for over half the audience; not to mention the blinding consequences of staring into a setting sun. Rather than risk skin cancer while looking at the rear-end of a stage, we posted up on the cool concrete under the atrium above the west side of the amphitheater. Our butts were numb by the time Loch Lomond channeled The Decemberists with their opening set, but the BYOB policy allowed us to take full advantage of an ice chest full of goodness, so by the time Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs took the stage, we were feeling no pain.
“Wow…I feel like a princess!” Veirs was the first to comment on the unique setting in which the performance would take place, as well as the spirited welcome the band received while making their way to the stage. At 42 years old, the folksinger (originally from Colorado Springs) was the baby of the bunch, and probably the least ‘famous’ of the core trio, but she was also the only member of the band who participated in the writing of every song on the case/lang/veirs album, so it was nice to see her receive just as much air time as her more established collaborators.
The set opened the same way the album does, with “Atomic Number”. Case’s red curls threatened to burst into flames as she took the lead on the one track where all three members share vocal duties. Admittedly biased, the main reason I attended the show was to see Neko Case, so watching her perform in front of a seated ‘wine and cheese’ audience gave me pause at first. Obviously it wasn’t going to be a New Pornographers show, but the lack of enthusiasm among the patrons seemed almost disrespectful. Then the torch was passed to k.d. lang for “Honey and Smoke” and her voice made me forget my surroundings. Arguably the most accomplished performer of the evening (by pure experience alone), lang’s sultry vocal style was classic in every sense of the word. That should have come as no surprise to those in attendance, but what was surprising (at least to me) was her sense of humor. At 54 years old, she was the most youthful person on that stage. Cracking jokes, dancing non-stop, and paying special attention to those sitting behind the band, she proved herself to be a true performer. Her constant smile lit the place up.
Veirs dedicated “Song for Judee” to Judith Lynne Sill. Case took the reins for “Delirium” (a song that would not be out of place on any of her solo albums). Then lang delivered “Blue Fires” in a way that literally gave me goosebumps, even though it was still hot as hell outside. And then it came back to Veirs for “Greens of June”. That round-robin format was followed through the entire performance. Almost every track from case/lang/veirs was represented and lang owned most of the banter in between selections. At one point she joked about how stressful it was for three strong, opinionated women to work together. Explaining the process as “writing and fighting,” lang referred to the group as “sister-wives”, before Case chimed in to defend herself, claiming “I was perfect.” It was all in good fun, but various interviews will validate the actual pain and suffering that went into the creation of the album.
The three women were accompanied by Steve on keyboards, Barbara on drums, Lex on bass, and Johnny on lead guitar, but it was a case/lang/veirs show, so it was fitting that almost the entire album would be performed, but with such an immense back catalog between them, it would have been a shame to ignore their solo material. Veirs was the first to break from the script, with “I Can See Your Tracks” from 2010’s excellent July Flame. Case added “Margaret vs. Pauline” to the mix next, causing this interaction…
Veirs: “Get out the liner notes for Neko’s songs, they are all like a novel”
lang: “Every conversation with Neko is like a novel”
Case: “an ADD novel”
…but it was lang’s cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” (which she recorded for Hymns of the 49th Parallel) that finally got people up off their asses. She made the song her own and once again sent chills through my body. Case is the wordsmith, Veirs is the meticulous indie folkster, but lang is the voice. And oh what an incredible voice it is. I could have listened to her sing Canadian covers all night long if that’s what she wanted to do.
The crowd was predominately retirement-aged couples, but there were families with children in tow. One of the little kids happened to catch the eye of lang at one point in the evening. When asked what kind of candy she was eating, the child offered to bring a piece up to them. “Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ lang warned, before the always sardonic Case added, “your life will go nowhere as soon as you step on the stage.” It was a very adult thing to say to someone so young, but it was done so in a light-hearted way.
The next warning actually turned out to be valid one though…
“Sorrow Nevermore”, from k.d. lang’s Sing It Loud, came with a disclaimer. “You might feel a slight pulling toward the stage, especially of the female persuasion…the banjo seems to be a bit of a chick magnet.” As if hypnotized by the six strings, more and more women joined the small gathering in front of the stage. The number of people had multiplied by the time things got a little rowdy with “Man”. The changing scene was now quite unrecognizable from the one that welcomed the trio an hour earlier. A younger, minority faction was establishing dominance as Case was channeling her indie rocker…
“And if I’m dipshit drunk on the pink perfume
I am the man in the fucking moon
Cause you didn’t know what a man was
Until I showed you”
Night had taken hold by the time we were treated to the first encore. Case brought us back to Fox Confessor with “Hold On, Hold On”, before Veirs gave her defining performance with “Best Kept Secret”. But it was “Constant Craving” that brought everyone back together again. The area in front of the stage was packed with people as lang worked all angles, making sure to acknowledge every single person on that lawn, while delivering a song that has aged as well as she has.
A short break was necessary after that emotional roller coaster, but within minutes we were led through a ‘fist in the air’ cover of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”. When the song came to a close, Case spoke to the crowd — “This is such a great way to spend time with human beings.” lang added “We really do have the power…in a week of bullshit in America, let love and compassion rule!” Then Veirs reinforced those sentiments as she led the trio through a protest song of their own.
“The hungry fools
Who rule the world can’t catch us
Surely they can’t ruin everything
I just want
I wanna be here with you…”
I’m sure drinking beer, and wine, and a cocktail or two in the sun had something to do with my state of mind by the end of the show, but those words rang true. That song was the perfect way to close out a warm summer evening with my wife…and three incredible singer-songwriters. I’m not sure the Denver Botanic Gardens will ever be our venue of choice, but Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs turned it into their home for one evening, and I’m glad we were there to see it…even if we were the most unprepared people in attendance.
Honey and Smoke
Song for Judee
Greens of June
I Can See Your Tracks
1000 Miles Away
Margaret vs. Pauline
Hold On, Hold On
Best Kept Secret
People Have the Power
I Want To Be Here