The best of Peter Case's songs suck you in to their own little worlds so deftly that you shiver with the final chord, like shaking awake from a dream. You've been there, inside, seeing what he's been seeing...
'Entella Hotel' has a small crowd at Brighton's Latest Bar rapt and, when it's evocation of living the lowlife in San Francisco is over, Case's collaborator tonight, Michael Weston King, speaks for us all:
'That's not just one of my favourite Peter Case songs, it's one of my favourite songs by anyone, ever.'
There are barely thirty people in the room and Case is so good, that's crazy. I shake his hand afterwards and tell him he should be playing to thousands. 'Maybe in another life,' he replies wryly.
He's 58 now and has been making solo albums since his classic self-titled debut in 1986. Prior to that he played in a couple of punky bands the Nerves and the Plimsouls. He's an accomplished guitarist, picking blues licks on an open-tuned acoustic with drive and no little finesse - but it's feel and impact rather than scrupulous technique that he goes for. His voice is distinctive, clear and expressive, with occasional echoes of John Lennon; his look is equally his own - imagine a beatnik Willy Rushton after an all night session...
This is the last night of a short tour with Weston King, a British country singer-songwriter and formerly one of the Good Sons. The set up is like a folkfest workshop: the pair sitting next to each other and trading songs, occasionally joining in to accompany each other. They open with a fine joint reworking of Tom Russell's 'Blue Wing'. Weston King has a decent voice and is friendly and engaging, but Case's songs are in a different league from his and so - like a folkfest workshop - the intensity and energy level in the room tends to fluctuate as the spotlight shifts.
Peter Case likes to tell stories between songs, as well as in them, and we get a long tale of buying in to Bob Dylan's self-mytholigising of running away to hit the road as a child. And, since Case grew up in Buffalo, his route out was Highway 62 - which runs all the way to the Mexican border at El Paso, via the birthplaces of Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly... Cue a splendid take on Dylan's 'Pledging My Time', re-imagined as country blues.
He's ready to mix in some old songs, like 'Put Down The Gun' (drawn, like 'Entella Hotel', from his second album Blue Guitar*) and even responds to a shouted request for the Plimsouls' 'Oldest Story In The World'. But he is clearly ambivalent about crowd-pleasing: he agonises over a request for 'Old Blue Car' and eventually turns in as an alternative, seemingly-improvised blues which he dubs 'New Old Blue Car'.
He also conveniently forgets my bid for the great 'Two Angels'. When I remind him afterwards he tells me that the song has just been featured in a TV show, providing the soundtrack as two vampires make love 'which, amazingly enough, is exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote the song...'
My partner and I reflect on the way home on the entirely random way that audience size correlates to talent. OK, someone like Case is always likely to be in the cult hero bracket, rather than a household name. That said, the cult really ought to be a little less exclusive. She points out that Peter is just as a good a singer, songwriter and guitarist as, say, Steve Earle, and of a similar vintage. But Steve is capable of drawing an audience in Brighton about a hundred times the size of tonight's. Go figure.
And go and see Peter Case at the very next opportunity: you won't regret it.
*and if you're not yet familiar with his second album's full title, try this for size: The Man With The Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-traditionalist Guitar. Yep, that's about it.