It was just another day at the office. Milling about Jammin’ Java minutes before showtime, Peter Case could be seen inputting the numerical code to unlock the backstage door in the intimate club ensconced in the corner of a strip mall a stone’s throw from outside Washington, D.C. Moments later he appeared on the small stage, providing not so much an introduction as a self-verification. “Apparently, I’m Peter Case,” he announced setting up two hours of folksy stories and sixteen songs.
It’s been over thirty years since Case recounted he was unknowingly nominated for a Grammy for “Old Blue Car,” the song he wrote with Victoria Williams. Case revived it, with his bluesy picking driving a new incarnation he called “Brand New Old Blue Car.”
Over the years, Case has survived a lifesaving medical operation, seen one of his songs appear in “True Blood” and weathered the unwinding of the music business in an era where, as he said, 2.5 million YouTube views will get you a royalty check of $15. It’s probably less than he earned as a street musician in Los Angeles playing Bob Dylan’s covers like “Long Time Gone,” a song that still sounded as fresh as ever and provided fodder onstage for Case to dispel some of the Minnesotan’s myths.
“I hope you don’t mind me telling stories,” the modern-day troubadour, who still spends 150 nights on the road, said early in his set. “I haven’t talked to anyone today.” Alternating between his twelve and six strings, Case sat center stage and wove stories throughout an evening that could have been billed “Peter Case, This Is Your Life.”
Case went back to his roots in the town of Hamburg in upstate New York where he grew up with Gurf Morlix. He recalled the name of his first song, “Stay Away From Me, I’m No Good” written for a girl named Barbie. Case continued the chronology recounting one of his first bands, the psychedelic Pig Nation for whom he promoted on fliers with his father’s office phone number for bookings. An early review said: “Pig Nation: Where were the chaperones?”
Onstage Case strikes an imposing presence, his eyes peering out behind glasses under the brim of his hat and thick beard accentuating his burly frame. Case barely moved for most of the night but got up to play some raucous barrelhouse piano, invoking some of the Jerry Lee Lewis inside of him along with bluesy phrasing that sounded like he was daydreaming, imagining perhaps sitting in with The Rolling Stones. Case got to cut loose on the Memphis Minnie standard “Bumble Bee.”
Case talked about his craft. When mistakenly arrested, Case was eventually released but not before getting a song title out of the experience. When asked why he was being let go, the jailer responded, “Somebody Told The Truth.” Case led the audience acapella with a rhythmic hand clap that evolved into a stomp. Guided by his hand signals, it gained sufficient momentum by the time he broke in with guitar accompaniment. Case’s “I’m All Dressed Up For Trial” was deceptively upbeat for its subject matter. But when he played “Pelican Bay,” he invoked fury in the human injustice of incarceration.
Showing how art imitates life, Case played “House Rent Party” inspired by a near fatal illness that resulted in a major operation and left him with a medical bill of $200,000. “They sewed me up and saved me,” Case shared, seemingly still bemused by it all. With friends like T-Bone Burnett, Richard Thompson and Van Dyke Parks, he was the beneficiary of a benefit that made the debt go away. Recounting the experience, he recalled what Parks told him: “This is just what we do.”
That circle of fraternity originally began in Hamburg outside Buffalo. Case recalled how he, Morlix, Mike Bannister and a sitar player named Tornado used to play “concerts” inside Bannister’s seventy-five foot Parkside Mercury. They’d pick people up along the way and open up their “patio,” sneaking people out the back window to dance on the back of the car.
The story’s embellishments have no doubt grown through the years and depends on who is telling the story. But Case was excited he’d soon be playing again with Morlix at the Palace Theater, the mythic place of his youth where he first saw Elvis Presley in “Harem Scarem” and many years later took his own kids to the movies.
Case’s musical lineage is apparent in the stories he tells and the blues he carries forth. During the night Case labored to get the right audio mix and sound levels. When he labored over getting his guitar in tune, he didn’t seem phased, leaning on something he learned from the great Townes Van Zandt and his method of tuning. Find the one that’s bad and tune your whole guitar to it, he summarized.
That lesson served him well tonight and surely will for many more nights to come.
Check out Peter Case’s tour dates, some with Paul Luc, here.