By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 31, 2006 at 5:18 AM

When Maow drummer Neko Case set down her sticks, presumably temporarily, to record a solo disc -- 1998's "The Virginian" -- she could hardly have expected to quickly become a Wanda Jackson for a new generation. Her brassy voice and sassy poise combined with some fine retro country pop to make Case the freshest voice on the alt.country scene.

By the time Case took The Pabst Theater stage in Milwaukee Thursday night, she'd left Maow behind, done double duty with The New Pornographers and released her sixth solo disc -- if one counts the "Canadian Amp" EP of 2001. She had also become far more complex a performer than could be hemmed in by a genre like alt.country.

In fact, on her latest disc, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," with its almost formless southern Gothic vignettes, Case trades the Jackson bluster for Flannery O'Connor's dark subject matter and Biblical imagery.

Backed by a quintet that included former Bloodshot Records labelmates singer Kelly Hogan and talented pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse -- who has accompanied Case on all her records since "Canadian Amp" -- Case offered one reading of her catalog, namely the more introspective and lower-key one.

Eschewing older barnburners like "Guided By Wire" and "High On Cruel," Case opted instead to focus on more majestic numbers like "Maybe Sparrow" and "Deep Red Bells" and folksier ones like "Wayfaring Stranger" and "I Wish I Was the Moon." The down tempo show did nothing, however, to dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd which filled the lower levels of The Pabst and even sent at least a few dozen people looking for seats in the balcony.

One thing Case has never been is distant and whatever her subject matter or musical bent, she can't shed her personable onstage patter and ebullient sense of humor, which always makes her a crowd favorite.

At her second Milwaukee appearance -- the first was at the Miramar on a tour promoting her 2002 "Blacklisted" disc -- Case gave her fans a look at what often one-dimensional alt.country acts could become: engaging songwriters combining diverse elements into something new and interesting.

And did we mention that she still has the kind of pipes that can rattle The Pabst's rafters?

Even if we wouldn't ever trade "Fox Confessor" for the "Honky Tonk Hiccups," it's a shame that she didn't get here more often in the past so we could have also seen the kind of high-energy shows that made her nearly legendary in other towns.

Opening the show was Martha Wainwright, sister of Rufus and daughter of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, alternating between tunes with a bassist and drummer and songs on which she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar.

Fiery and stark, Wainwright's music was alternately tender and full of rage, driving and rambling and she's something of a punk rock Sandy Denny.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.