Sunday, July 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, Woody

WoodyFest at City Winery, New York, NY, July 13th 2012

I don't know how much I really want to get into this, but let's just put this out there.  I am, unapologetically, a lefty.  That aspect of my personality also means that I have always been a huge fan of Billy Bragg.  And it was Billy Bragg, along with Wilco and Nora Guthrie, who introduced me to the  whole, fleshed-out person of Woody Guthrie through the Mermaid Avenue project.

When I bought the tickets for Billy Bragg's July 13th appearance at City Winery, I knew he'd be playing a bunch of Guthrie's songs.  Volume III of Mermaid Avenue came out on this year's Record Store Day, after all.  I didn't know, though, that he'd be just one of several performers on the third night of what City Winery was calling WoodyFest in honor of Guthrie's 100th birthday.  The rest of the bill would consist of Joe Purdy, Amy Helm, and Steve Earle.  Earle emceed each of the three nights.  I'm going to admit, I was a little apprehensive about the new development.

City Winery is an easy trip for us Jersey folks.  It sits right outside the Holland Tunnel on Varick Street, so it's almost like you just poke right into and out of the city when you attend a show there.  We'd been to a few of John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders shows as well as a Billy Bragg solo show there, so we knew what to expect:  very tight seating, a good view of the stage, Mediterranean accented bar food, and expensive drinks.  Our tickets put us right up against the stage.  We shared a table with a nice couple from Westchester who were sweating the offer that they had recently placed on a house in Asbury Park.

The show began with all of the performers on stage for a rendition of "This Train Is Bound for Glory."  It was one of those everybody-take-a-verse hootenanny type things, and it was fun.  I felt like an idiot for never realizing until that moment that Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams" is basically a mash-up of that song and "People Get Ready."

After that, Earle introduced each of the performers in turn for their solo sets.  Up first was Joe Purdy.  I'd never heard of Purdy before.  Bearded, thin and very soft-spoken, he did a nice set of Woody songs along with some of his own.  His rendition of "Worried Man Blues" really brought out the desperation in that song.  Amy Helm followed, accompanied by Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Littleton.  Littleton ripped it up on his beat-up, old Gibson acoustic, and Amy Helm sang beautifully.  "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore" sounded great and amazingly current.

I enjoyed both sets, but things were getting a little reverent for me.  Then Earle introduced Billy Bragg.

Bragg, who often speaks as much as he sings during a set, opened with a story, from early in his career, about when he was asked to sit on a Woody Guthrie panel that included Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.  When the time came for the "This Land Is Your Land" sing along, Bragg had to confess that, being from England, he didn't know the words.  He said, and I agreed with him, that he thought that Mermaid Avenue worked out so well because it needed somebody who didn't know the words to "This Land Is Your Land."  It needed somebody who didn't think of Woody Guthrie as some sort of saint.

Bragg's set included his usual comic banter along with "All You Fascists," "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," "Guess I Planted," his own rendition of "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore," and "Dry Bed," during which he had the audience sing the chorus.  That was it.  The Billy Bragg portion of the evening did a nice job of turning Woody Guthrie into a real person, but it was way too short.

Steve Earle closed out the performances.  He did a moving rendition of Guthrie's "Deportee" along with some of his own material, including "Christmastime In Washington" with its chorus of "Come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now."  I felt the reverence beginning to creep in again.

For the finale, Earle brought everyone back on stage along with Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie.  Nora then did a really nice thing and introduced the Woody Guthrie archivists, who I'm sure have had a busy year helping to put together centennial celebrations and compilation albums.  "You know how this is gonna end," Bragg said, and they all, archivists included, closed the show with "This Land Is Your Land."

All in all, it was a good evening.  Those protest songs can get my lefty blood pumping, and I can honestly say that Woody Guthrie makes me proud to be an American.  I would have enjoyed about another hour's worth of Billy Bragg doing his own material and, maybe, a slightly less worshipful atmosphere.  But it isn't every night that CoolMom and I can spend an evening out pretending that we're sticking it to the man.

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