Last Night: Peter Case At McGonigel's Mucky Duck
Surviving 40 years of rock and roll is not nearly the same as embodying it, preserving artful, poetic, and transcendent song forms that persevere as the world unveils socio-political and cultural shifts, religious upheavals, ever more demanding business models, and a mutated musical landscape. The lore of yesterday's rock and roll becomes the sound bite and Tweet of today's digital nation; the music's power and primacy become no more than reference points in an irony-laden culture that cuts'n'pastes history with facile zeal.
Peter Case is not the new wind, he is not the iTunes fashion of the week, not the pretender and plastic hero. He is the raw old America, a haunting spirit, letting songs dwell deep, distilling from mind-bending acid rock, earnest and earthy folk, stark and lean punk, and deep bellowing blues, just to name a handful. He mines these genres effortlessly, sometime within the same tune, personalizing and stamping himself on them, bargaining his soul with them, finding solace and refuge in them, and keeping them close to his side like an arsenal of tools.
He is the kind of maverick letting audiences know they can free themselves from mind-forged manacles, to quote William Blake, whose illuminated books nurture the songwriter. They do not need to be trapped within the culture of the unreal, the hectic and dizzying pace, the continual pressures of the economy, and the day-to-day doldrums that keep happiness at bay.
Whereas most artists settle for sincerity, he offers the sublime. He aims to dislocate our sense of the safe and familiar, vowing that there is a greater destiny built in songs. We need not dwell in the arcane or the phony.
With tenacity and humidity-drenched passion, he cleared the shadows of the Mucky Duck with a set that that was part dialog with his musical catalog, part new-record promotion, part folk-medicine healing and rustic triumph in the age of slickness and pandering. Starting with a few gems of late-1980s material, the early solo years, he offered the spirited plea "Put Down Your Gun," a perennial favorite, followed in succession by the softly narrated "Entella Hotel," sliced from the same period as well. These songs grabbed the attention of Bruce Springsteen 20 years ago, and still keep audiences easily entwined.
Without embellishment, he shifted ahead ten years to the supple meanderings of Full Service, No Waiting, a seminal record from his Vanguard years. "On the Way Downtown," coveted by the likes of Dave Alvin, was a tender foray into his own Buffalo, N.Y. history. Invoking the city's cellars and musical underbelly - the school that really raised him - the figures in the song are imbued with lasting meaning, for Case still keeps in contact with many cohorts from his teenage blues-rock years, such as fabled producer Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams). Like many from the Rust Belt, these friendships provided him a personal roadmap, a way to navigate the fickle world.
Then Case let loose with his rollicking, full-throated version of David "Honeyboy" Edwards' "Bumble Bee," which buzzed hard. Like a living totem of the Southern Delta blues, the songs transforms through Case's application of beatnik sensibilities. Letting loose with his own migrant song style, he segued from such easygoing ruckus to the restrained, melodic, but audible anger of "Million Dollars Bail," visited from his recent opus Let Us Praise Sleepy John. Harkening back to tunes like Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," both songs bemoan a justice system that serves to protect the rich and wealthy, not the everyday people under their thumb.
Immersed in that 1960s vein, Case plumbed Jimi Hendrix's "Waterfall," giving the tune an acoustic facelift that lost none of its sinewy, elastic intensity. It felt like an ode or prayer, thankfully, rather than a psychedelic postcard. "Old Blue Car," plucked from his first solo album in 1986, which usually comes electrified and stomping, was unleashed, minus distortion and drum pounding, but bolted with blues bottomed swagger nonetheless.
The crystalline tune "Two Angels" followed. Covered by Alejandro Escovedo, and featured on a True Blood episode, the song is always sonorous and sad, a look back at loss and personal grief. Yet, this version had specks of ricocheting guitar unheard on the album's slow clarion call.
By the end of the end of the night, after holding down the audience with other tunes like the smoldering "Walk in the Woods" and Blind Willie McTell's ramblin' and raspy "Brokedown Engine," Case had cultivated a sense of permanent energy from the American songbook, the very fabric of the American experience in song. As these songs of different eras, artists, and his own personal transformations were assembled, installed into this low lit room masked in shadows, listeners realized that Case is no accident, he is no savant.
Above all, Case is a conscious surrogate, an emboldened and literate scavenger of culture from Dante and French symbolists to the Bible and hip mid-20th century poet Ted Berrigan, skilled with the items that take root in his heart and fingertips.
Each concert, he spontaneously chooses the known and unknown, honing his inner voice every step and not listening to the scarecrows of commerce. He makes new things from what he finds and secures a sense of indelible spirit. Intuitive and learned, homemade and well-honed, he does not focus on simply tending to the flock of fans.
Instead, he is a sentinel, rough and ready to believe in the mandate of creativity, the organic DIY scholarship of songs, and the impulse of transformative expression, easily brushed aside in the workday world.
Personal Bias: Hearing The Nerves re-imagined for the pub dinner crowd!
The Crowd: The devotees and the newbies, side by side, one swirling songs in their heads, the other clinking glasses and swirling gossip.
Overhead In the Crowd: "That was some awesome fucking songs," said one surprised worker, who must have been too busy to notice Case's four-decade career before Tuesday.
Random Notebook Dump: A guy literally having Case sign almost every release known to him, as Steve Poltz took a photo of my wife's .... hair.
Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.