Time and trouble laid their heavy hands on Peter Case's new full-length Wig!, but Case sounds pleased to deliver the record's uncomfortable wisdom. In fact, Wig! comes across as light-hearted and hip as its somewhat old-fashioned title and the rock and blues licks its songs take off from. Having come through a very tough year, Case has made what you could call a rock 'n' roll record, a pop blues collection or the ultimate house-rent party album — take your pick. It's inclusive music for the excluded, which probably includes Case himself.
Born in Hamburg, N.Y., in 1954, Case grew up in nearby Buffalo and moved to California in his teens. As a member of Los Angeles bands The Nerves and The Plimsouls in the late '70s and early '80s, Case married new-wave dynamics to American power pop, and such songs as The Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away" gained him considerable notice.
These days, Case leans toward various forms of mid-century rhythm-and-blues, but his pop pedigree is never far from the surface. Starting out in Buffalo, Case got a typical late-'60s rock education. "I was in a band called Pig Nation in 1969," he says. "We played really loud three-chord rock 'n' roll, probably really influenced by The Plastic Ono Band and Let It Bleed or something. We used to do a super-loud version of [Link Wray's] 'Rumble.' "
Equally influential was Buffalo's cultural stew, which included plenty of displaced Southerners gone in search of work. "Buffalo is kinda like Detroit — there were a lot of people up there working in steel mills and car factories, comin' in from Mississippi and Louisiana," Case says. "I grew up on blues and rock 'n' roll, but I realized at some point I couldn't be a blues artist — I'm not, you know. To actually hang my shingle as a bluesman just doesn't seem accurate."
Still, Wig! swings like the craziest blues and talks trash like the best rock 'n' roll. What's even more remarkable about the record is how Case came back from major heart surgery to cut it over a few days last year. It's an unfortunately typical tale — Case found himself with life-threatening health problems and no health insurance — but he managed to survive in style.
"I came in from the road in 2008, at the very end of the year, and it was a grueling tour," Case says. "I came back in and my blood pressure went up to, like, a million. I felt really bad at the end of the tour. I just happened to have the bread to have this [cardiac] test, and I did it, and lo and behold, I was extremely blocked."
In fact, the lower half of Case's heart was almost totally blocked, so he was rushed into surgery immediately. "I had my car on an hour meter," he says. "And the doctor says, 'You could have a major, catastrophic event at any minute.' So they checked me in, like, 20 minutes. I didn't have any insurance or anything. It was a real trip, man, and saved my life."
Cut in a couple of quick sessions in Los Angeles with a band composed of drummer D.J. Bonebrake and multi-instrumentalist Ron Franklin, Wig! doesn't stray from the kind of simple, effective techniques '50s and '60s blues performers favored. "Look Out!" begins with a basic lick played on piano and hangs on one chord, with Franklin's keyboard doubling the lick toward the end.
Franklin, whose Wurlitzer plays alongside Case's grand piano on "Look Out!," may be the record's secret weapon. A Memphis singer, songwriter and all-round player who has worked with such Bluff City notables as garage-rocker Jack Oblivian and legendary Panther Burns drummer and spoken-word artist Ross Johnson, Franklin co-wrote three Wig! tracks and helps define nearly every track.
"Sometimes I'll listen to the record and I can't tell if I'm playing something or Peter's playing," Franklin says. "I once made a record that [pianist] Jim Dickinson played on. He'd be on piano at the same time as me. When we went to do Wig!, that's what I thought of quite a bit — that session with Dickinson."
Wig! is a good argument for doing things quickly and on the fly — a very rock 'n' roll approach. Case and Franklin's songs are about what happens when the rent money is gone and people bang on your door at 3 a.m. for someone who used to live there.
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