The meaning behind the music with Peter Case
by Mick Rhodes
You know things are going to go well when you call Peter Case and the first thing you hear when he picks up is a harmonica solo.
“It’s gonna be a musical interview,” the 65-year-old singer-songwriter said. “You just ask me a question and I’ll play a musical answer.”
Okay, what have you been listening to lately? [A soulful blues riff erupted in response.]
“Does that answer your question?”
He’s been writing acclaimed, literate solo records and touring nearly nonstop since, and Mr. Case will be back at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, 220 Yale Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 31. Tickets, $20, are available at the store or the door.
“I love playing Claremont,” Mr. Case said when reached at his Bay Area home. “For some reason the shows there feel really special to me. They’re very intimate. I like Ellen and Jerry and the people there. It actually is a folk music center. It’s one of those places in the United States where this music’s being carried forward.”
A constant musical traveler for more than 40 years, Mr. Case has thousands of miles and thousands of gigs behind him, and has released 12 studio albums as a solo artist. That number swells to about 30 if you include his earlier releases, compilations and side projects.
And he’ll soon add to that body of work with two new records on Bandaloop Records.
He just finished tracking the first one, “The Midnight Broadcast,” a collection of pre-war blues covers and a couple of originals, recorded in an old church near Boston.
“It started as a completely folk record, but of course it ended up being a lot more ambitious,” Mr. Case said. “It’s still a folk record, but it’s got a lot of wilder elements to it.”
Initial sessions for the second album, “Doctor Moan,” with all songs written by Mr. Case, will likely be begin in March in Los Angeles.
“I was touring through the late fall and early winter, and I got to play some of these songs live before I made the record, which is always a really great thing,” he said. “It’s more than a bonus, really, it should be a necessity to play the songs for people and figure out how things are going down right and what’s working. So I’ve been doing that, and it’s good.”
Mr. Case also has a track, “I Don’t Worry About a Thing,” on the 2019 Mose Allison tribute record, “If You’re Going to the City.” The record also features Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello, among other heavy hitters. “It’s cool, I’m really proud of it,” he said.
Mr. Case is one of those rare performers—think Nick Lowe, John Prine or Neil Young—whose talent, charm, and above all, songs, make audiences forget he’s standing there alone with just a guitar, his voice and maybe a harmonica.
“That’s one of the joys of just keeping it going,” Mr. Case said. “It’s how I make a living, but it also keeps it alive and fresh. It’s the contact with the audiences that really brings things alive. You sing the songs and you feel them going out to people, it brings them into three dimensions.”
Mr. Case said he prefers going at it alone at this point in his career. “I make a pretty big and convincing sound, solo,” he said. “It goes from a whisper to a scream, really. It’s a full approach. The music really carries it away, I think. I’m playing that big 12-string guitar, you know.”
Fans who attended Mr. Case’s April 2019 FMC show might remember there was a documentary crew filming that evening. Filmmaker Fred Parnes has been shooting a documentary about Mr. Case for some time, including footage from that evening. The as of yet untitled film is currently in post-production.
“It’s been great,” Mr. Case said of the film project. “I don’t know what to expect. Who knows what it’s gonna be like. I don’t know what’s going to happen, maybe nothing, I don’t know. The way things are, I just wait ‘til things happen before I really check into it. So, who knows.”
Though the music industry veteran was loath to take a position one way or another, this longtime admirer is hopeful the upcoming documentary will boost Mr. Case’s profile enough to bring more folks into the tent, allow him to get around the country more comfortably, get more recognition—although he’s already had two Grammy nominations, in 2001 and 2007—and of course, make a little more money. But I’m just a fan, hoping for some artistic justice in a harsh world.
“It’s a way for a lot more people to hear my music,” Mr. Case said of what may come from the upcoming film. “You get to the stage I’m at and it’s not really about ambition or anything. It’s just about trying to get your music out and have people hear it. That’s what it is. It’s fun though, and it’s positive, and maybe it’ll be a thing for people to see. But we’ll have to wait and see.”
He’s always been a traveler, logging his first tour miles in 1975 with proto-punks The Nerves. (Blondie had a hit with the band’s “Hanging on the Telephone” in 1978.)
It’s no revelation that the life of a traveling musician can be a punishing grind. Though not directly related to traveling, in 2009, Mr. Case suffered a heart attack at 54 years old.
After emergency double-bypass surgery, he recovered fully and has since resumed his regular tour schedule. He’ll be in the UK in March.
“So, it’s been a long story, y’know?” Mr. Case said. “And as a solo act I’ve just played and played and played. I really have spent a lot of time on the road. It’s kept the music alive—it’s kept it alive in me—but it’s also alive for the audience. It’s not like a museum piece, it’s very alive and contemporary.”
And now after more than 40 years on the road, he has arrived at a place of deep understanding, gratitude, even reverence for the vagabond life, perhaps more so than any musician I’ve encountered.
“I do know that following the things that you really enjoy and love about life is good for your health,” Mr. Case said. “I dig what I’m doing. I don’t know if it’s easier physically, because I’m always running around with all my luggage and guitars, but at least I don’t have to carry a Fender Twin [Reverb amplifier] around. The gigs feel good to me, and so I know that keeps me young, and the music, and singing and playing the gigs, I know that keeps me healthy.”