Peter Case at The Rhythm Room, 6-26-11

Peter Case
The Rhythm Room
Sunday, June 26

As much as he's a songwriter, Peter Case is a storyteller.

All throughout his solo acoustic set at The Rhythm Room last night, Case peppered the space between songs with stories from his rock 'n' roll past: Scoring free records from Elektra when his band The Plimsouls was signed to the label in the '80s; opening for The Ramones and getting kicked out of "every label office" with his '70s band The Nerves; catching a set by his hero Honeyboy Edwards.

Case doesn't just tell these stories on stage. He was selling a book, As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport, which tells the tale of his migration from Buffalo to California at the start of the '70s. "Something's bound to come around," he writes in the book. "Tonight I'll just take my guitar and go back up on the street." 

Sitting at the bar pre-show, I heard Case discuss his plan with the bartender. "I'm just gonna play one long set," he promised.

The stage setup was sparse -- just two acoustic guitars on stands as Case bounded up. There were no openers, just an overheard soundtrack featuring the kind of Delta blues that Case has spent a good portion of his career playing .

Opening with "Gun Down the Gun," from his 2001 album Thank You St. Jude, Case recalled the immediacy of Steve Earle, with the melodic flair of Elvis Costello. It's extremely tough to pull off the "one guy with an acoustic guitar" thing, but Case demonstrated the way to get it right. His guitar playing was as solid as his voice -- matching chiming, open-tuned chords with deft, Takoma Records-style flourishes.

Case joked about creating a new genre with his son, dubbed "Celtabilly," which mixed Celtic melodies with rockabilly boogie. The song he demonstrated, "On the Way Downtown," seemed less Celtic to me when played solo, but it was a great tune.

Case joked about seeing a guidance counselor in high school, and telling them he wanted to be "an itinerant bluesman" when he grew up, and they set him to work "looking for a sharecropping gig."

He paid direct tribute to bluesmen during his set, extolling the virtues of Honeyboy Edwards and playing "Sweet Honey Bee," joking that the best thing to come out of his contract at Elektra Records was a Leadbelly box-set. He then played "30 Days in the Workhouse," and referring to Jimi Hendrix has one of his favorite singer/songwriters -- not often a term you hear attached to Hendrix -- before playing "May This Be Love (Waterfall)."

"Every 24 Hours," a tune written with Richard Thompson, showcased Thompon's flare and Case's words. It recalled the early Thompson albums and his work with Fairport Convention, at once vaguely Middle Eastern, and an utter clash between English stoicism and Cases' all-American ethos.

Case switched between six and 12 string guitars as the night went on, often stopping to tune them. "I have to learn how to talk and tune in order to get my singer/songwriter merit badge," he joked.

Case didn't play "A Million Miles Away," his big Plimsouls hit, but he did break out "When You Find Out," a song he recorded with The Nerves. I like Case's rustic, Americana stuff a lot, but his power pop work is what got me into him, and it was thrilling to hear the song performed live by the man who wrote it.

Case joked that the best thing that can happen when a songwriter pens a love song is that a "hot vampire show" on television picks up the tune. "Two Angels" was featured on True Blood,  and it's easy to see why. The song's delicate sentiment is undercut by a strange, haunting mysticism.

The small crowd cheered for more as Case finished his set, and he obliged, strapping on a harmonica for the last two numbers, "Broke Down Engine Blues" and "A Walk in the Woods." The harmonica filled the sound out, and added a new dimension. The crowd called for more as Case finished, but the house music came back on and he had posted up at the merchandise table, where he signed autographs and sold CDs. This has been Peter Case for decades -- a man who hits the road, and plays his tunes in coffee houses and bars.

Seems like that visit to the guidance counselor wasn't far off.    

Set List:

"Put Down the Gun"
"Entella Hotel"
"On the Way Downtown"
"Sweet Honey Bee" 
"I Ain't Gonna Worry No More"
"Every 24 Hours"
"May This Be Love (Waterfall)"
"House Rent Party"
"The Words in Red"
"Ballad of Michael"
"When You Find Out"
"30 Days in the Workhouse"
"Two Angels"
"Shook His Hand"
"Poor Old Tom"
"Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile"
"Dream About You"
"First Light"


"Broke Down Engine Blues"
"Walk in the Woods"

Critic's Notebook

Last Night:
Peter Case at The Rhythm Room

The Crowd: Not packed. There were a couple dozen roots rock fans.

Overheard: "You buy the new one [The Case Files] and I'll buy the other [Wig!], and we can burn them for each other."

Personal Bias: The last few shows I've covered for Up on the Sun have been sit down, mostly mellow affairs. I really need to get back out to a rock show.

Random Notebook Dump: "The Nerves opened for The Ramones in '77. Wow."