Peter Case at Club Helsinki
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 25, 2002) – Though hardly a household name, Peter Case has been bubbling under the mainstream for the better part of a quarter-century, as a solo performer and as a leader of various bands, including the late-1970s, new-wave, power-pop outfit the Plimsouls. At this point he’s something of a cult figure – a musician’s musician – recognized by the cognoscenti both for his superb craftsmanship as a writer of rootsy pop songs and as a virtual walking encyclopedia of American roots music, including blues and country.

In his solo appearance at Club Helsinki on Thursday night, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Case was an engaging performer, generous with his stories and songs, delivering them with devotion and without pretense.

Much of his material sounds like modern folk music – epic ballads and blues updated in content and smoothed over in form into pop songs. “Something happens when you’re near,” he sang to kick off his show, before launching into “I’m on My Way Downtown,” one of several songs that catalogued his early days of wanderlust that took him away from his home in small-town western New York, first to big-city Buffalo and eventually on the road to Northern California, which he calls home to this day.

“Coulda Shoulda Woulda” was a bit of hyperkinetic acoustic rockabilly which played up to his Buddy Holly quality. “Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile” was a surrealistic story song in a modal arrangement that could have been cousin to “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleedin’).” And “Walkin’ Home Late,” about hearing gospel music in Memphis, showcased his soulful side.

Case was both rangy and elfin onstage, forever moving around whether he was bouncing to the inner pulse of his songs or just working off nervous energy in between songs. He had a powerful stage presence – a strong, confident voice and a commanding guitar style. He unplugged his instrument and delivered “Space Monkey,” a novelty number he wrote with John Prine about the first simian astronaut, directly to the crowd in the club, campfire-style, without skipping a beat.

In the end, however, there was something missing from Case’s performance. While he gets high grades for all the individual elements that go into a good show, there was something ultimately bland or almost generic that perhaps helps explain why he has never really grabbed a larger audience. His earnestness is what puts him over, but it’s more the earnestness of an enthusiast than an artist. No one can doubt his sincerity, but he lacks that edge, that glimmer of madness, perhaps, that separates the craftsmen from the visionaries.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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