Freedy Johnston, Peter Case, and Alejandro Escovedo — “a three-headed folk monster,” to use Johnston’s phrase — concluded their cross-country tour with a loose but sharp performance in the intimate backroom of McCabe’s Guitar Shop that underscored their significant yet distinctly different talents as songwriters.
Johnston began the show with an acoustic version of “Western Sky” and then picked up an electric for the rest of his short set, which included soft-spoken versions of “The Lucky One” and “This Perfect World”. In larger spaces with louder sound systems, Johnston’s wispy vocals frequently get overwhelmed, but in this quiet, living room-like setting, he effectively showcased his exquisitely constructed vignettes.
If Johnston’s songs are richly observed short stories, then Case’s are rough-and-tumble tales. Cranking up the energy level, Case stalked and stomped around the stage, performing such old faves as “Crooked Mile” and “Turnin’ Blue”; however, he was equally as effective on the pensive “Beyond The Blues”, which he sang walking amidst the audience. Wearing a wool cap and a thrift shop jacket and tie, Case looked like a hip-hop math teacher, but he sang with a restless urgency that captivated the crowd.
Escovedo turned in the evening’s most confessional set. He started off by playing a new song, “Follow You Down”, accompanied by his violinist David Perales and Johnston on backing vocals. Then Case, playing harmonica, replaced Johnston onstage for the darkly bluesy “Bury Me”. Later, Escovedo and Perales ventured into the crowd for a tenderly unamplified cover of Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother”. By stripping away its glam-rock flourishes, they revealed the song’s poignancy.
But the real treat of a bill like this is when all three musicians perform together. A relaxed mood prevailed when Case, Johnston and Escovedo came out for their “collective” encore. Jokes were bandied about, frequently at Johnston’s expense. For the tour’s eastern leg, they used Johnston’s van (subsequently parked somewhere in St. Louis), so Case and Escovedo kidded that they all work for Johnston.
The first encore song was Case’s “Two Angels”, which Escovedo admitted he had covered on a 1994 EP without asking. Either Case had heard this story before and/or he didn’t mind, because he raised no objection. After a ragged take at Merle Haggard’s “The Running Kind” and fending off audience requests, the three decided to do the first songs that they had ever written.
Escovedo led off, introducing “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over” by revealing that he wrote it while waiting in an Austin bus station for his brother Javier to arrive so they could start the True Believers. Case wrote his first song (the simple, garage-rocky “Stay Away”) at a much younger age, as a member of a “latch key band” called the Cavaliers with childhood pals in the ’60s. Johnston’s first song, written at an age somewhere between Case’s and Escovedo’s, was a humorous little ditty called “Sparky The Heroic Dog”. They closed off with a rousing medley of the Flamin’ Groovies “Yeah My Baby” and the Velvet’s “Waiting For My Man”, which climaxed with Case playing a “guitar solo” on a broken string.
The only disappointment was that this was the early show of a two-show night, so it lasted under two hours. Because each performer could play only a handful of solo songs, the show felt like a musical sampler platter, but it was still substantial enough to make for a memorable evening.