Songwriter supergroup case/lang/veirs conspired with the Denver Botanic Gardens last night to produce some pretty bucolic moments. For example: Picture, during a performance of the group’s lovely tribute to the tragic life of Judee Sill, two little kids moving barefoot through some invented ballroom-dancing steps before bursting into giggles and sprinting off through a bunch of bristlecone pines.
These Botanic Gardens concerts offer a specific kind of live-music experience. How much you will enjoy that experience is, I suspect, strongly correlated with how much you enjoy wine-and-cheese pairings.
Look, I don’t mean to be dismissive. The relatively cozy amphitheater on York Street has hosted heroes ranging from Tony Bennett to Lucinda Williams to Buena Vista Social Club. The series (currently booked by Swallow Hill Music) has dabbled in the contemporary and adventurous, as well, featuring the likes of David Byrne and St. Vincent. And the immaculately manicured setting is spectacular.
Still, the proceedings have a slight but unmistakable Members-Only vibe. And in fact, Botanic Gardens members do get a huge percentage of the tickets during exclusive pre-sales (which follow the allocations to corporate donors and other high-level supporters), so the crowds overwhelmingly comprise upper-middle-class supporters of civic institutions. This demographic is characterized by ownership of picnic paraphernalia, sporadic arrhythmic dancing and a general kindness — except when confronted with perceived breaches of etiquette. I talked to a couple who have been attending the series regularly for some twenty years; they said they’ve found “a more privileged crowd” here than at other venues in the area. I nodded in agreement as they made this assessment, and the three of us stood there proving the point.
Case/lang/veirs (that’s Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs) had plenty to offer this assembly. Their official bio characterizes the three artists as an avant-rock icon, legendary musical nomad and indie-folk star, respectively. Those all sound like hilariously meaningless descriptors to me, but I’m not saying I could do better. Together, the three have some thirty-plus albums' worth of material that runs the gamut of rock (or avant-rock, I guess) and folk and plenty of other things, including country, jazz, pop, punk and various shades of Americana.
The story goes that lang e-mailed the other two one day a few years ago out of artistic admiration, asking if they wanted to record something. All three have worked on collaborative projects during their careers, but the process of writing the songs this time around was unusually democratic, sometimes uncomfortably so. The result — a self-titled album released in June — is a remarkable accumulation of the three artists’ considerable strengths: lang’s indelible voice applied refreshingly to a melody supplied by Veirs, or a perfect Case turn of phrase delivered with arresting empathy by Veirs.
No one really seems to be in charge. Lang has the biggest stage presence (and fan base, at least at this particular show), but Case is close. And Veirs is the only one with a writing or co-writing credit on every song on the album. With a couple exceptions, they take turns on lead vocals, and they are deferential in those backup roles.
They’re clearly having a blast with this whole thing. Lang (who was responsible for the vast majority of the on-stage banter last night) had plenty of quips, such as: “It’s not easy being in a sister-wives relationship. Some people like more carrots in their carrot-and-raisin salad.” You can almost see Case and Veirs on the tour bus, explaining their respective salad-ingredient preferences to a bemused lang.
In addition to the new album, the set list contained a few highlights from the solo material (two each for lang and Case, one for Veirs) and a couple of covers. The first, Neil Young’s “Helpless,” was, depressingly, the crowd’s favorite moment of the night. The second was Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” which lang dedicated as a reminder of the importance of love and compassion “during this week of bullshit in America.”
They closed with their own defiant love song. The chorus starts off, “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us/Surely they can’t ruin everything” — and it felt right then, in the idyllic glow of the Botanic Gardens, with that campfire harmony rising from those three singular voices, that “us” could be expansive, could include so many people that the hungry fools would no longer rule the world, thereby decreasing the total amount of bullshit.
Then it was over. Case/lang/veirs will spend the rest of the summer riding around the country, fueled by carrot-heavy salads, finding places that will probably help them create more affirming moments, places with names like the Weesner Family Amphitheater in Minnesota. If you're in the vicinity, I strongly recommend that you pack a picnic and join them.
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