By Mike Finkelstein
Last weekend, Peter Case recorded his first-ever live album in the backroom at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. For an old school songwriter with as rich a talent as his, it somehow seemed fitting that this album was being recorded on actual reel-to-reel tape in the small McCabe’s sound booth. As is the case with analog recording, every hour or so, the tape must be changed and this gave Pete a chance to tell stories, involve us in a blues sing-along or just talk. No problem. He is one of those somewhat beatnik, deadpan characters who could make reading the contents of the medicine cabinet engaging and entertaining. In several ways the show was as much about the banter as the actual songs, which is saying quite a bit about both.
Arriving onstage with a long bushy goatee, longish hair, black rim glasses and a stylish hat, he looked like quite the poet. As he walked through a maze of guitars and chair legs, he announced that he was now quite spaced out.
The format was Peter on stage solo for two sets, each complete with a tape change intermission. The program featured songs from all points in his song-writing career, not in any particular chronological order. The stage was festively laid out with bouquets of flowers, a huge American flag on the wall, a well-represented hat rack, a gorgeous old Ampeg guitar amp, and of course the four guitars (2 electrics, and acoustic 6 and 12 strings) he cycled through.
His guitars are less often in standard tuning and for most of the evening he played in a lowered open tuning (open C has been a favorite of his over the years). This sound lent itself well to a very resonant, signature gut-bucket bluesy guitar sound. On Friday, his finger picking boomed through the room as he blasted away at the walking bass runs with a thumb-pick. He sang in a wide range of raspy tone and emotion to fine effect.
Case got into the blues early in his teen years in the Buffalo blues scene. In fact, he started his career with a strong emphasis on playing piano but he stopped practicing, as the guitar became a bigger part of his life. On Friday he gave us a pounding and nicely embellished rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Black Crow Blues” on McCabes’ upright house piano.
As the evening progressed and the stories behind the music unfolded we began to get a real feel for the way Case’s career has developed. Like many songwriters, he left his hometown early and hit the road with his guitar, living a not so easy lifestyle and writing about everything artfully as he went. He developed and practiced the true art of putting words together to make something memorable and worth thinking about, or maybe just chuckling about the clarity in the sentiment.
As Case spoke between songs you also became aware of how these thoughts grew into lyrics, how observations can develop into stanzas. His songs are vivid and multi-layered, and they bring out the beauty in simple descriptive language.
On Friday Peter brought out everything from old blues standards dating back to Memphis Minnie, as well as his amazing original folk songs, and even one of his first ever songs about a friend who went to the Woodstock concert in 1969. Some standouts on Friday included but certainly were not limited to “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More,” “Garden of Earthly Delights,” “The Words in Red,” “Walk In the Woods,” and “Echo Wars.”
People prefer certain songs for reasons of personal taste, and “Walk in the Woods” (from Case’s masterful first solo album Peter Case) has always mesmerized me for its haunting and elegant simplicity.
“News from the radio it rang out through the fields,
Just when they thought they found the track
Through a patch of four leaf clovers, they vanished in thin air
They took a walk in the woods and they never come back”
The song kept its sense of mystery while maintaining its musical allure in the tie between harmonica and guitar. And Case was chock full of similar high water marks in terms of matching high musical levels with his words.
On Friday there were stories of dreaming about meeting John Lennon in a used record store, and a hilarious sequence about a recent escapade in New Jersey, which led him far into the backcountry to a club owner’s mansion. Ten pigs had the run of the roost and one of them, Jerry Lee, played a toy piano. It began to sound like the plot of a long-lost Fellini movie.
Like so many elite wordsmiths, Case writes and sings a poignant set of songs, but he also spins a good yarn. His descriptions of setting out hitchhiking for the first time (he only got two blocks), of being a San Francisco street musician (at age 15!), and of sleeplessly driving his first band, the Nerves, around on tour in a station wagon while perhaps hallucinating a herd of armadillo were priceless.
One can only wonder how much of his storytelling will make it onto the album, but it was entertaining as hell to listen to him play and dish.
To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.