Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Peter Case Celebrates Late Dylan Masterpiece “Early Roman Kings” (premiere + interview)

Peter Case releases The Midnight Broadcast this March. It's his first album of new material since 2015 and a celebration of late-night travel, a meditation on loneliness, and the power of music.

Peter Case releases The Midnight Broadcast worldwide on 12 March via Bandaloop Records. The collection comprises covers, ranging from Sleepy John Estes, St. Louis Jimmy Oden, and a host of tunes from the public domain. The record opens with an early Case original, the stately “Just Hanging On”. It marks the singer’s first record of new material since 2015. In anticipation of the release, Case introduced listeners to the concept at the heart of the record, a broadcast from some remote radio station, where the music is so good, so captivating that the listener may not quite know how to comprehend what they’re hearing or where it’s coming from.

“You’re alone, or maybe with one other person, at night, on a long journey in a car, far away from the nearest town, driving in the darkness,” he writes. “Your eyes are on the headlights and the road, as the dashboard faintly glows, and the radio is on but only receiving static. A radio station begins to tune in. A broadcast is coming in and out of focus of a DJ who’s announcing records, a rock n’ roll DJ with a voice from Finnegans Wake. The music starts, but what is it? A very strange and wild song is playing, strange, but familiar too.

“One song after another, all different, but all of a piece, like a transmission from the other end of the world. Songs of cowboys, lovers, fighters, and shipwrecked sailors, hope, laughter and despair, ancient blues, gutbucket jazz, and singing machines, songs that sound like one microphone is listening in on a roomful of maniacs. Or on someone in the loneliest blue motel in the West. It’s the Midnight Broadcast. Hypnotized, obsessed, radiant, you want to pull over and listen, but that might cause an accident.”

It’s fitting that the veteran troubadour references James Joyce in his description of the record: There’s an elusive, dreamlike quality to the collection, the songs sequenced in such a fashion that the listener might believe they’ve been invited for a journey into the singer’s subconscious, to marvel as he moves seamlessly from song to song, whether one plucked from the pages of the distant past or one from more recent times, such as his rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Early Roman Kings”.

The tune, which appeared on Dylan’s late masterwork, Tempest, fits with the record’s brief. Released in 2012, it draws on various streams of American music, namely the blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. With bawdy, insistent rhythms and fine, refined lyrics, the composition is a testament to the multitudes heard across the Minnesota native’s output.

In Case’s hands, though, it’s transformed into something more eternal, a trip down the river of time, through the constant dream state that is American life. And, as he does with any material he records, whether an obscure folk song or something from his formidable pen, Case lives entirely within the space of the song, inhabiting it like the master musician, writer, and interpreter he is.

“I immediately loved the song; it really spoke to me,” Case says. “Me and the producer, Ron Franklin, really love Chess Records and Sun Records, the way those things were recorded with one microphone. So we sort of made a Chess record with ‘Early Roman Kings.’ There are maybe two mics, but I think it was one in a room, about a block from where we recorded the rest of the record. The lyrics are talking about gangs, but it’s also ‘Early Roman Kings’. It seems so familiar right now with the current landscape and characters in the country. Sometimes it’s like he sees the future.”

Recorded on Martha’s Vineyard in late 2019, The Midnight Broadcast was essentially finished at the start of 2020, though the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic stalled progress. Case says the inspiration for the collection came to him while he was on the road, particularly a European tour somewhere around 2019. He’d spent a lot of time isolated there, spending long periods playing guitar backstage and contemplating some of his favorite folk and blues songs. Though he’d initially imagined a fairly solitary approach to the album, he soon assembled a small but formidable cast of musicians to join him for the recording. He also had another turning point, also while on the road.

“I was driving along one night,” he recalls. “I don’t know where it was. A lot of times, after a show, I drive at night and try to make it to the next place. I was driving late at night like that, and I turned on the radio somewhere in New England, and I heard this incredible radio show. That happens on the road. You’ll turn on the radio and hear some wonderful, far-out thing that you’ve never heard before. It just hits you in that environment.”

Radio, perhaps unsurprisingly, has played an essential role in Case’s personal and musical development. He recalls hiding under the covers as a child to listen to his transistor radio when he was supposed to be asleep. And not always to music: Sometimes it was prize fights, other times news reports, other times it was the latest tune from the Beatles or a country station. “That’s the inspiration, really,” he offers. “That late-night drive, the dark, spinning the dial in the car. Those late-night broadcasts where the DJ kind of comes in and out of focus.”

Case spoke with PopMatters about the record, time, and his love of radio from his home in Northern California.

I love the idea of this serving as a kind of broadcast. There have been records that have done that kind of thing before. The Who Sell Out mimics a pirate radio broadcast. But I don’t know of another record that does what you’ve done with The Midnight Broadcast.

This is sort of like that weird nighttime floating sensation that you get from radio in the dark. It’s not just one station or anything. It’s things that are unclear; they’re almost coming in. You can be listening, and it’s the most fantastic thing you’ve ever heard in your life, but you have no idea what it is. It’s something you can’t even believe you’re hearing, like a live gospel recording or something, but filtered through the sound of the radio.

I love listening to old records too. Many of my favorite things are old, things that you would have heard on 78 or something. Stuff from all over the world, but especially American blues and country stuff. But I also love gospel. When we were making this record, we were also listening to Brian Eno’s [Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks] that he did with Daniel Lanois.

That’s an excellent record.

An incredible record, you know, kind of like pedal steel in space. I love that record. Then we were also listening to a really wonderful record by him called The Ship. Those two records are really beautiful. I love what he does with that ambient stuff. There’s one called Thursday Afternoon [that I also love]. I find it beautiful and relaxing in the same way that late-night radio listening is like that. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.

You’re listening to a Brian Eno record about space while recording on Martha’s Vineyard.

You need to take a boat to get out to this place. It’s like an old whaling church. You go back in time. Like Moby Dick. Seafaring people. There’s the horror of the whaling industry but also the idea of the people who would risk their lives to go out to sea. It’s a very strange thing. Anyway, this church had an incredible echo. We recorded most of it live in that church. That’s not electronic echo; it’s just the church. We played live in the room and recorded it on a Nagra recorder, two-track. It was made to be portable and record sound for movies. It’s got a certain sound to it.

The thing I really love about the record is how abruptly it ends. It’s really like when you’re driving at night, in the middle of a great song, and then, “Whoosh!” It’s gone.

Exactly. Or you have to get out of the car for some reason, or you just lose the signal. That’s exactly what happens.

There’s this other element that’s a lot like late nights. Like, maybe sitting up with a guitar and just playing and not thinking too hard, but pretty soon, you find that you’ve gone from Leadbelly into the Who into something else. It’s just automatic.

Many of the songs or songs I’ve had around for a long time, and I just know them. The first song on the record [“Just Hanging On”] is something I wrote when I was 15 or 16. I brought that back. The others are just songs I’ve loved for a long time. There’s stuff that expresses the loneliness you feel when you’re traveling alone. You know, sitting in a motel or a dressing room, just playing different songs, letting them spin out. These songs really spoke to me. In a way, this pandemic is like being at sea.

There’s a strangeness to travel now. I’ve been at home for almost a year now—very little driving. A few weeks ago, I was taking my cat to the vet, just a short trip, and I was freaked out by the oncoming traffic. It was mesmerizing and frightening.

I know, it’s, it’s like we’ve traveled back in time. A year ago, traveling didn’t seem so exciting. There’s an inner voyage, in a way. Staying home gives you a different sense of the world. I had a dream the other night that the pandemic was over, and I was on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and everything was glowing like I’d never seen anything glow.

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