This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American folk singer, Woody Guthrie, an occasion that has prompted Billy Bragg to perform concerts in each of the nations of the UK, at the behest of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. Bragg and Ms. Guthrie have worked together now for a number of years on the Mermaid Avenue albums project which has seen Billy and US band, Wilco, putting music to previously unrecorded and unseen Guthrie lyrics. The two original Mermaid Avenue volumes have recently been joined by a box set of the entire recordings with previously unissued tracks and a DVD of the fine Bragg-fronted film about Woody’s work, Man In The Sand. Here in south Wales, we were fortunate to get the show on our doorstep at the great little Parc and Dare theatre in Treorchy. Here’s my reflections on an evening of Guthrie via Bragg.
First off, support act, Martyn Joseph, well known in these parts, but not so well recognised in the rest of the UK, put on a fine but all too brief performance that perfectly illustrated that all one needs for a good night’s entertainment is a man, his guitar(s) and some very good songs. Joseph did almost come to national prominence in the 80’s when he was being promoted as a rising pop star in an unfortunately AOR mode but he has since come to see that his strengths lie very much as a more straight-ahead singer-songwriter. Songs like ‘Cardiff Bay’ and ‘Dic Penderyn’, whilst obviously displaying local affiliations, touch on universal themes that made me draw comparisons with the likes of Tom Russell and, if I may be so bold, Springsteen. Indeed, Joseph acknowledged his debt to The Boss with a strong version of ‘The River’, which was not out of place alongside songs of his own like ‘Arizona Dreams’ and ‘Lonely Like America’. I will certainly say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the man’s set and could easily have listened to him for another hour or so.
Billy Bragg, probably the UK’s best known Guthrie promoter and preserver of the spirit of Woodrow, walked onto the very bare Parc and Dare stage and sat with two acoustic guitars and a supply of tea to lubricate his throat. I’ll admit that I had hoped he would be performing a whole range of Woody’s songs but from the off it’s clear that he intends to, more or less, stick to the Mermaid Avenue material, although we do get a couple of original Guthrie gems in the shape of ‘Slip Knot’ and ‘Deportees’ before the night is over. Still, one can’t complain because he certainly did great service to Woody’s words with his music and his performance to night is as strong as you would expect. Favourites like ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ and ‘She Came Along To Me’ are all present and correct and Billy does a good job in showing the uninitiated a wider view of the art and character of Mr. Guthrie with laugh-filled talk of Woody’s obviously masturbatory fantasies about Ingrid Bergman. Bragg is a very engaging host but I did find it slightly ironic that even though he had prefaced the evening’s performance by saying how he wanted to get right away from the academic style of presentation that so often dooms the discussion and playing of folk song, his approach was sometimes more akin to a lecture than the proto-punk rock spirit of Woody himself. I’m sure if we’d had the chance to see the legend in the flesh for ourselves he would have been jumping around the stage and firing off songs left right and centre in a fashion closer to Bragg’s own punk heroes, The Clash, than that of someone just signed up to the ‘Pete Seeger School of Earnest Folk Singers’. For this audience member, Billy only really seemed to truly get the adrenaline (his and ours) running when he jumped into ‘All You Fascists’, the aforementioned original Woody classics, ‘Deportees’ (one of the encores with Martyn Joseph) and ‘Slip Knot’ or, the final songs of the entire (long but I ain’t complaining) night, his own ‘Don’t Buy The Sun’ and ‘Waiting The For Great Leap Forwards’. Indeed, with these final two tunes, where Billy talked of the new revelations about the Hillsborough football ground tragedy, he truly began to channel the spirit of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. I will also add that throughout the whole show we were kept highly entertained not only by the songs but Bragg’s own abilities as a raconteur. If you’ve never heard the hilarious tale of his stay at Morrissey’s house with Paul Weller, Jimmy Sommerville and the rubber bed sheet, I’m sure you’ll find it on YouTube.
To sum up: a very solid night of entertainment and edification in celebration of the life and work of one of the most important singers and writers of the twentieth century which would have benefited even more from an injection of Bragg’s own spiky spirit and a step away from the traditions of the Folklore Society or The Smithsonian Institute.