Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Peter Case Live In Cedar Rapids

Peter Case

Live At CSPS, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

June 4, 2013

Peter Case’s life is one that has been in constant motion.

And the years and the miles are quite apparent in the man’s appearance; his face now detailed with lines and a mound of grey on his chin. It’s quite a difference from the shaded hipster of The Plimsouls or even the still-boyish look of the cover of The Man With The Blue Post Modern Neo-Traditionalist Guitar release.

The last thirty years have seen him traveling the roads of “almost recognizable” and “cult favorite.” He has probably hit a bunch of the same venues over and over again, making his career seem like a sequel to Groundhog Day than the places of interest for a well-traveled icon.

This would be only his second visit to our state professionally. While contemplating the number of times he’s been in Iowa, Peter remembered a story of a gig in Missouri that he missed, primarily because he became lost while patrolling the Hawkeye state’s back roads.

As an Iowa native, I can say from experience that some of those roads lead nowhere.

For Case, the road helped shape his experience and that own experience began when he told his parents-both of whom were schoolteachers in the Buffalo public school district-that his next step would be to drop out of school.

And with plans like that, you can imagine the next item on the “To do list” was to find new housing accommodations. Teachers don’t respond well when their kids tell them they’re dropping out. It tends to be somewhat of an insult to their profession.

Case got his G.E.D. and got the hell out of his parent’s house. He traveled from the cold Buffalo climate to the warm, inviting arms of California, where he ended up a street performer in San Francisco. He looked closely at his new surroundings, and from those observations, he turned the stories into songs.

His first encounter with notoriety was while he was in the band The Nerves, an early punk rock entry with pop overtones. Green Day would make similar advances more than a decade after The Nerves split, but they always acknowledged how it was bands like The Nerves that did it first-and some would suggest, did it better.

Case later got more exposure as the frontman of The Plimsouls. They cracked the Top 100 with a song called “Million Miles Away,” an infectious piece of power pop that it not only got added to the soundtrack to the movie Valley Girl, it also got the band a cameo in the film.

The movie would become Nicolas Cage’s first starring role in what would prove to be a very successful career, but the band’s fortunes were not as great. The Plimsouls were actually in the process of breaking up when Hollywood called, but since Hollywood was just down the street from their home turf, it wasn’t glittery enough to keep them from splintering just as their popularity was growing.

I remember discovering The Plimsouls through that film, but I also remember something more striking when I took the obligatory step to learn more about them.

By the time I noticed, Case had already embarked on a solo career. What I didn’t know was how far Peter had moved from his power pop past with his debut release Peter Case.

It was a very organic and rootsy affair. Peter Case is an Americana album before such a name even existed.  “Old Blue Car” was the leadoff track from that record, and it featured a loose beat, sparse arrangements, and Case honking on a harmonica in between his passionate ode to an old car and its most important accessory: a pretty woman around his arm.

During a time when pop music embraced the processed digital chill of a state of the art technology that sucked the life out of most recordings, producer T-Bone Burnett kept it simple. And Case went back to the music that caused him to question authority and drop out of school to begin with, so the pairing is mutually beneficial.

Case has stuck to this style of music ever since. More important than his commitment to  authenticity is the man’s true passion for the history of music itself. He peppers his records and set lists with songs from the past, paying close attention to identifying every performer in case you want to look into their work after the gig.

Case is an obvious follower of Mr. Zimmerman and he has made a point to carry on the tradition of lone troubadours like him. And while simple inspirations like sex, drugs and rock and roll would also fuel his younger passion, when the day came time to make a choice for a career as a rock and roller or just a simple folk journeyman, Case chose the one that was more closely aligned with his own muse.

Right out of the gate, his worked gained him a Grammy nomination. “Old Blue Car” became a left-field curio because it sounded so different when compared to the college charts he was accustomed to. The record company liked the attention that his album garnered, and they complimented it by throwing large sums of money to pair Case with notable session players and expensive producers.

As he noted in one of his stories before hitting the material, the moment that he delivered an album that cost next to nothing even while maintaining the critical accolades that followed him throughout his career, was the moment when the label dropped him. The large costs would keep him tied up in legal paybacks for many years to come, so an album recorded with the utmost efficiency only stacked the deck in Case’s favor.

Peter Case starring as Merle Haggard
Ironically, when Case began scaling back his musical approach as a cost-cutting measure,  his music suddenly blossomed. This was the approach of his idols, but more importantly, it was an approach that complimented his clever storytelling skills to no end.

Before too long, he was better known for his commitment to the American roots than the Paisley Underground. But for some like myself, his proper start began with rock and roll, but it is obviously his talents as a songwriter that places Case at the top of the artistic food chain, regardless of what genre he associates with.

On Tuesday night, Peter Case’s skinny tie was a neck holder for his harmonica, his chiming Rickenbacker turned into a refurbished acoustic 12-string, and anything that required electricity was either left behind or not working (spoiler alert!).

He’s sitting down for most of his performances now, and when he raises up from his seat, Case’s back instinctively slouches over with age. His smooth face from the days of his youth is now comprised of wrinkles and a grey goatee that he occasionally tugged at.

Case is approaching 60, and if it’s not enough that a man his age is still pulling weeks of one-nighters in intimate settings like CSPS, what does make this fact a little more frightening is how heart surgery was the only thing that seemed to sideline him from his constant tour schedule just a few years ago.

He acknowledges the toll, but the passion in his acoustic performances also acknowledges a musical history that requires a never-ending commitment. For example, Case approaches a song by Sleepy John Estes with such unbridled enthusiasm that you wonder if the preservation of the songs and stories of our country’s music is more important to him than his own self-preservation.

His sets are so open and filled with enticing narrative that an evening with Peter Case on stage is probably the same kind of evening with Peter Case in your living room. You become enraptured by his stories and passionate picking that even when Case flubs a note or the proceeding story begins to ramble, you remind yourself that he’s traveled a few thousand miles just to play here. I’d say he’s allowed to stretch out, miss a fret, and refer to his career in self-deprecating terms.

Even a non-functioning keyboard would only interrupt the set for the amount of time it took Case to work his way back to his acoustics. And when he was advised later in the set that the keyboard was now working properly, Case only used it for one song. He doesn’t like traveling the same road twice, so the idea of the keyboard was an exit from several miles before. He used it for maybe one or two songs before returning to the acoustics.

He’s an excellent picker, but he is far from being a perfectionist, allowing the flubbed frets and missed runs to act as moments of integrity. Case can be showy when it’s necessary, but he also peppers it with moments of self-deprecation just to let you know that he’s good enough to make a living at this thing, but he’s not good enough to be a star.

That’s the only frustrating thing about him, because he should be a star. When he dismissed such a notion after a bit on banter from yours truly, he was speaking against the title in its most superficial of terms.
A star in my mind is someone with the kind of chops that can influence others to pick up an instrument and run with it. Case certainly has the power to do that, and he’s patient enough to acknowledge his own stars. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Case would view some of the same artists that he covered that evening as “rock stars,” even though they probably never even saw an electric amplifier.

By the third standing ovation encore, Case didn’t even bother to return to the stage. Instead, he hoisted his acoustic guitar up and walked around the front row of tables, sans microphone. He sang the most honest version of “Beyond The Blues” ever, and it transcended everything else he did that evening at the Legion Arts hall.

And after two-hours of stellar music that already made the evening a perfect encounter, his final selection only confirmed what I yelled from the crowd earlier: Peter Case is indeed a rock star. 

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