A half-dozen songs into Wednesday’s performance by Neko Case, K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs at the Long Center, Veirs took a moment to model one of the band’s sweatshirts promoting their recent “case/lang/veirs” collaborative record. “The album’s really good,” she humblebragged, “but I’ve heard the live show is even better!”
Indeed, “case/lang/veirs” is one of the best records of 2016, a 14-song suite of uncommon beauty that pools the talents of three distinctly creative singers and songwriters. Early on, though, as they pressed through eight of the album’s 14 tracks to open the set, the vibe was somewhat low-energy. The performances were lovely, yet it seemed as if Veirs’ claim overplayed her hand: Perhaps this intriguing trio was best appreciated on record.
PHOTOS: Case/Lang/Veirs perform at the Long Center
But Veirs was just holding all the cards close to her chest. Midset, they broke away from the “case/lang/veirs” material to explore some songs from their own albums, with Veirs’ “I Can See Your Tracks” and Case’s “Margaret Vs. Pauline” allowing them to stretch their wings. The turning point came when Lang stepped out front for her showstopping cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a highlight of her 2004 album “Hymns From the 49th Parallel.” A flame that had heretofore felt cool-blue suddently pushed red-hot, and there was no turning back.
Lang is easily the most natural performer of the three. That showed as she prowled the edge of the stage for her spotlight numbers, and especially when she used a banjo to great theatrical effect on “Sorrow Nevermore” from her 2011 album “Sing It Loud.” But Case turns up the intensity more forcefully. On “Man,” from her most recent solo record, she drove much of the crowd into a dancing frenzy, including Lang, who totally immersed herself in the moment.
RELATED: Case, Lang, Veirs team up for a fascinating album
Veirs, meanwhile, serves as a sort of steady-hand crazy-glue that binds them altogether. Starting out calm and cerebral — the new-album track “Song for Judee,” an ode to ill-fated 1970s songwriter Judee Sill, was an early-set highlight — Veirs gradually let loose as the evening progressed. By the time the main set finished with “Georgia Stars,” she was on her knees wailing away on acoustic guitar, the centerpiece of a musical maelstrom. As Lang and Case whirling-dervished around her, the first-class backing crew of guitarist Johnny Sangster, keyboardist Stephen Moore, bassist Lex Price and drummer Barbara Grusker propelled the song to a glorious crescendo.
Two encores yielded five more selections that lifted the show from very good to legitimately great. Case and Lang each offered up a signature moment from their solo careers with “Hold On Hold On” and “Constant Craving,” respectively. A smartly-chosen cover seemed obligatory, and they delivered in spades with an inspiring rendition of Patti Smith’s ever-timely “People Have the Power.”
At @longcenter, #caselangveirs encore with "People Have the Power" #austin360nights pic.twitter.com/C0Qjopbe8Z
— Peter Blackstock (@Blackstock360) August 4, 2016
Veirs brought the perfect bookends to those closers. “Best Kept Secret” is perhaps the poppiest tune on “case/lang/veirs,” the closest to reaching the girl-group punk-pop vision that Lang originally envisioned when she proposed the collaboration. And as high-energy as the night turned out to be, ending on a quiet note still felt right. Veirs’ gentle acoustic strums introduced “I Want to Be Here,” a simple love song from the new album that floated across auditorium like a benediction in three-part harmony. So, yeah, the live show was even better.
Canadian indie singer-songwriter Andy Shauf, whose new album “The Party” came out on the same Anti- Records label that released “case/lang/veirs,” opened the night with a 30-minute set. Shauf and his three backing bandmates had a few pleasantly melodic tunes but never quite overcame the ill-advised decision to begin with a plodding number that rambled for almost 10 minutes.
1. Atomic Number
2. Honey and Smoke
3. Song for Judee
5. Blue Fires
6. Greens of June
7. Down I-5
8. 1000 Miles Away
9. I Can See Your Tracks
10. Margaret vs. Pauline
13. July Flame
14. Sorrow Nevermore
16. Georgia Stars
17. Best Kept Secret
18. Hold On Hold On
19. Constant Craving
20. People Have the Power
21. I Want to Be Here