by Kevin J. Hosey
The life of a folk musician, featuring Peter Case
It is appropriate that Troubadour Blues, Tom Weber’s new documentary on life on the road for folk musicians, will have its world premiere this Friday opening the Buffalo International Film Festival. That’s because much of it focuses on former Buffalonian/two-time Grammy Award nominee Peter Case.
The documentary, which was more than 10 years in the making, follows Case and other folk and roots-based musicians (Dave Alvin, Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix, Mary Gauthier, Chris Smither, Garrison Starr, Mark Erelli) through live performances, interviews and lots of driving, which the musicians call a massive and hidden part of their existence. This ranges from the hours getting to gigs to composing songs based on it and the effects on their lives. “You kind of look at your job as driver,” Cleaves says, while Alvin notes “It’s all about the two hours you’re on stage.”
Are folk singers political? Case notes that “Republican presidents are good for folksingers,” introducing “Poor Old Tom,” about a man who spent his life in the Navy trying to live the best he could, only to end up lobotomized, adding the song was written during the Reagan administration. The musicians discuss escaping small towns (Hamburg and Boston for Case) and hitting the road young, and Alvin also notes what good fortune he had sneaking into bars in the 1960s to catch original folk, blues, and country performers, opportunities today’s youths may never have.
There’s little love here for the industry: “I detest the music business,” Morlix bluntly says. Most also appreciate and enjoy writing songs for themselves; Case talks about how much easier it is to write songs for himself than for his former band the Plimsouls, despite having penned and sung a new wave classic, “A Million Miles Away.” The house concert has become a mainstay to these performers, and several enjoy the increased closeness to their audience and knowledge of its members.
Weber, an Erie, PA, native now living in Pittsburgh, explained the origins of his film in an email interview. “I was a fan of the Plimsouls, and met Peter around 1998, when his new album was Full Service No Waiting. He was playing a show at Jamestown Community College, which my friend Craig Frischkorn was promoting; I got to see the show and hang out with Peter. I liked his whole rock-and-roll sensibility as well as his tendency to approach songwriting as almost a form of journalism. His songs seemed to flow out of his life experience, but at the same time they talked about larger issues, homelessness, alienation, the whole struggle of trying to remain human in an increasingly brutal mechanized world.
“I also had a long-time interest in documentary filmmaking, but had been unable to pursue it due to life circumstances. When good professional video cameras became available, I bought one and started recording Peter’s shows. Peter introduced me to Chris Smither at a show in Boston, and I started doing the same thing with Chris. Chris led to Mark Erelli, who had just written a song called ‘Troubadour Blues’ that became my theme song. Peter was the constant that I kept returning to; I became fascinated in how his songs would change and evolve, and how new ones would come about, how he related to the changes in his life.
“[Getting chosen for the festival] is a funny coincidence. I spent a whole year and a lot of money unsuccessfully submitting a rough cut of the film to many festivals. I got a whole lot of rejection letters. Then I saw on Facebook that BIFF was looking for films with a strong Buffalo connection, and I thought that mine has about the strongest Buffalo connection you can imagine. Buffalo kind of pervades the whole film. Gurf is from Hamburg, we filmed in Hamburg and at Sportsmen’s Tavern. I filled out a contact form on a Saturday in June, and the next morning my phone rang and it was Edward Summer, the executive director of BIFF.”
Peter Case and filmmaker Tom Weber will both be present for the premiere of Troubadour Blues. The 7pm screening will be preceded by a reception at 6pm; a post-film party will be at Hucklebuckets, at the other end of the Northtown Plaza.
Watch the trailer for Troubadour Blues
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