Pop: I put you on a pedestal, you revive my career
Friday 06 November 1998
WOODY GUTHRIE, the anti-fascist folk singer and Bob Dylan's musical guru who died in 1967, was writing lyrics in the Forties that are highly relevant today, according to Billy Bragg.
Recently, Bragg and American alt.country band Wilco were asked by Guthrie's daughter, Nora, to put music to a bunch of her late father's lyrics from that period, and they came up with the stunning Mermaid Avenue album.
Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's warm, emotive voice, interacting with Bragg's Thames estuary yelp, should have produced a gig to cherish but, for some reason, it just did not happen.
Instead, the set opened with Bragg doing two solo acoustic versions, including "Sexuality", which he finished by bellowing "we can be what we want to be", adding "and that applies to Ron Davies as well".
It was also the cue for the Blokes and the first of the Guthrie numbers. Woody wrote a song about gender politics and "She Came Along To Me" provided the first hint of musical diversity from the Blokes (who took Wilco's place and were to prove their worth throughout the night) with some searing Zimbabwean highlife-style guitar from Lou Edmonds.
The song, delivered with touching emotion, was also a reminder that Bragg, often stereotyped as agitpop, has written his best lyrics about personal feelings, such as "Tank Park Salute" which he gave a rare airing tonight.
Persecution was the next theme and Woody's contribution was "Eisler On The Go", about the German composer who escaped from the Nazis and was then thrown out of the USA for being a communist.
Again the Blokes surprised, this time with Ian McLagan (yes, he of the Small Faces) on keyboards providing bluesy, almost trip-hop, vibes.
Then came the politics, with Bragg as stand-up comic saying the tour was backed by the GMB union. The Guthrie spin was "I Guess I Planted", with a ranted pro-union chorus.
An unreleased Guthrie/ Bragg composition called "Flying Saucer" was preceded by the assertion that Woody was not just a folkie: when living in Brooklyn, he listened to urban music and scribbled on the lyric sheet that the tempo should be "supersonic boogie". It is doubtful whether he had a fuzzed- up surf-punk intro in mind, but it was good.
Guthrie's song for children, "Hoodoo Voodoo", got the ska treatment with Bragg thoroughly enjoying a goofy dance and they finished, three encores in, with the forthcoming single "Way Over Yonder In the Modern Key", a manic hillbilly take with Edmonds by playing a range of Turkish instruments and band leader Ben Mandelson ripping away on lap steel.
Largely thanks to a dead guy, and incorporating musical styles from several continents into his set, Bragg is better and more relevant than ever.
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