It's the usual sad story in today's numbers-oriented music business: San Francisco's Peter Case had a hit in the early '80s with the power-popping Plimsouls, but like the girl in the song ("A Million Miles Away"), success proved elusive. Since then, Case has continued to do what he really does best: write and sing songs, carving out a niche of fame for his exemplary sense of craftsmanship and his ability to move a listener by creating a whole world out of a simple assemblage of music and words. Unfortunately, most people don't know who he is.
"I'm underground," Case observes. "For several different practical reasons, I pulled the plug on my rock career, and nobody does that and lives." In the limbo of his own making, Case put out a string of solo albums packed with great songs built on the backs of folk tradition, gutsy rock and a pristine pop sensibility. And recently, he rode Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt, an acclaimed compilation work that Case produced and performed on for Vanguard records, on a tough path to the Grammys. However, the award-grabbing Down From the Mountain stole Avalon's fire in the Traditional Folk Album category.
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No matter. Work is all Case needs. "You just go out and you play," he says. "Woody Guthrie hitchhiked all around, and nobody knew who the heck he was. But ten or so years later, by the time I'm a kid in grade school, we were singing that song in the classroom!" And Case thinks Avalon -- which evokes an after-hours song circle featuring such fellow song-crafters as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Dave Alvin and Beck -- was a fine effort: "It has a great spirit, a vibe in it that I think comes from [Hurt's] music, one that's simple and elegant and rooted in earth."
Peter Case and Kreg Viesselman
Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Avenue
8 p.m. Friday, March 8
Expect a similar vibe when Case performs a solo set this weekend at Swallow Hill Music Hall, singing songs that have all passed the self-prescribed Peter Case songwriting test. And what makes a good tune? "It's good if it makes you feel like time has stopped, like everything's possible, like love's possible and doors can open out of the sky," he says. "It makes the pressure drop and the ghosts come up out of the ground. It makes your hair stand up on end."