Picking a song that best reflects the emotive and narrative detail of Peter Case would be as frustrating as singling out a single champion work from the catalogs of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson or any other world class songsmith.
But after sifting through two decades worth of extraordinary Case recordings last weekend, a selection surfaced that at least serves as a sublime primer for anyone not familiar with his music. It’s a bittersweet tune called On the Way Downtown that was first issued on Case’s 1998 album Full Service No Waiting and again on the fine 2004 compilation Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?
The song is, in essence, a ghost story although its light folk-blues melody and Case’s cordial singing initially suggest otherwise. Poetically distraught with the present, the song’s protagonist returns to the scene of younger joys and glories (“where my friends who died still hang around”). An out-of-place intruder to the newer, younger inhabitants of his former haunts, Case still sings hopefully about a full circle sense of change (“the season’s been and gone, another one’s comin’ on”).
It’s a masterful bit of storytelling, one that provides at least one reason for taking in Case’s return performance tonight at Natasha’s. But On the Way Downtown is a snapshot in a career full of extraordinary solo recordings that emerged in the wake of tenures in two West Coast post-punk bands – The Nerves from San Francisco and The Plimsouls from Los Angeles.
Case’s own critical hit parade began in 1986 with a self-titled solo album that sported help by a pair of studio hands that would become two of the most heralded record producers of the ensuing decades: T Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom. The tone, texture and temperament of Case’s following records shifted considerably from the rockish drive of 1992’s Six Pack of Love to the sketch pad folk immediacy of 1993’s Peter Case Sings Like Hell.
The stylistic changes were more subtle when Case signed to the longstanding folk label Vanguard in the mid ‘90s. Recordings from the period – which included two of his best, the aforementioned Full Service No Waiting and 2000’s Flying Saucer Blues – coincided with Case’s first Lexington performances at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.
While little by way of commercial popularity has come his way through any of this, Case’s critical reputation has remained at a peak. A 2001 tribute album to the music of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt that Case curated (Avalon Blues) along with a 2007 record of folk-blues themed originals (Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John) both earned Grammy nominations. Still, Case’s commercial visibility remains sadly out of sync with his artistic reputation. His last album of original material was the 2010 roots savvy trio set Wig!
If his initial Natasha’s shows stand as an indication, Wednesday’s return performance should be a retrospective of sorts. His June 2010 show at the venue included Two Angels (a Case gem from the 1986 album), the sublime On the Way Downtown, several Wig! highlights including The Words in Red and a selection of covers that ranged from Bob Dylan’s Pledging My Time to Bukka White’s Fixin’ to Die Blues. A reading from 2006’s As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport – a whimsical memoir that treated Case’s initial move from his upstate New York roots to his ‘70s digs in San Francisco like a spiritual pilgrimage – rounded out the performances.
Peter Case performs at 8 p.m. May 6 at Natasha’s Bistro. 112 Esplanade. $15. Call (859) 259-2754.