Peter Case has stumbled across a monthly stint at the once storied and recently revived folk haven known as the Ash Grove with a bold concept: Cram raw, unfiltered singer-songwriterdom down the throats of those curious fans willing to open wide. It’s called Peter Case’s First Flight, a no-frills, no-pretensions gig that includes Case and three other songwriters, all of whom take turns singing and strumming, with only one stipulation — the songs must be new.
Now, “new” is loosely defined. To Case, it means songs that haven’t been recorded. He kept to his word as he launched this show, the third installment of a laboratory experiment that has previously included Dave Alvin and John Doe, with a ragged, aggressive folk adventure that instantly came to life with Case’s signature, raspy, Lennon-esque vocals. Amy Rigby was next, immediately breaking the rules by serving up “Beer and Kisses”, the pop ode to a broken marriage from her recent Bar/None release. She defended herself by explaining that the new experiences for new songs had yet to materialize. Stu (just Stu, for this show anyway) of the East Hollywood band The Negro Problem followed. The beanie-topped singer delivered songs of simple, soulful understatement — surprisingly mesmerizing coming from an artist whose band leans toward brainy, quirky pop. Then came Georgia star Mare Winningham, who set her tone with an earthy, Joni Mitchell-like tune that featured dulcimer accompaniment. And then it all started over again.
Taking turns singing songs is nothing new, but First Flight is still an intriguing concept for both fan and artist. The artists not only face the anxious act of trying new music in public, they also must confront the odd responsibility of controlling the evening’s tone for only a few minutes at a time, then patiently waiting another 10 minutes or so until the next opportunity. After Case delivered a torrential country-blues catharsis (damn, he sounds great these days), Rigby joked that there was “a fight between good and evil going on right next to me,” and then went into a ditty about a bookstore clerk. And after Stu sang a hilarious and ultimately sad piece about Barbie’s Ken being gay and having to live a toy life of denial, Winningham did her best to reel in a more precious state of affairs.
For the audience, it is a first peek at songs, sometimes even at artists, in an extremely intimate setting. Plus, if you’re not into a particular performer’s trip, it’s only a brief endurance test — as was ultimately the case with Winningham, who, while gifted in voice, lacked any truly engaging songs. Fans also get to watch the performers squirm. Rigby never quite settled in, seemingly uncomfortable with the sit-down, solo-acoustic format. Even the master-of-ceremonies himself had his troubles. Case strained to see his cheat sheet of lyrics and, after his fifth and last song, lamented, “I should do that one again.” And after one of Winningham’s songs, one that included a painfully misplaced chord, she cracked an embarrassed smile, put out her arms and started flapping. First flight indeed.