Sunday, October 2, 2011


Coming in 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, and the party is getting started a little early.    You'll recall back in 1998 when his daughter, Nora Guthrie, announced the discovery of a treasure of Woody's words, completed but unpublished (and unrecorded) songs.  Since there was no record of the melodies, the heirs presented musicians Billy Bragg and Wilco the lyrics, entrusting them to compose and record in his spirit, if not in his exact style.  There were two volumes recorded, with successful and enjoyable results.

As was mentioned at the time, there's more where that came from.  More lyrics, journals, stories and notes, more observations, political statements, love songs and foolishness.  With so many possibilities, this time Nora called on bassist Rob Wasserman, known with his excellence in collaboration and project work.  His Trios album still stands as one of the great concept pieces, teaming up disparate characters with great results.  Nora asked him to take away more unpublished scribblings, find some like-minded souls, and come up with interesting results.

Apparently it took quite awhile, as Wasserman admits he had to be pushed to finish, but he also loved the project.  Each piece features a different character from the rock, jazz or folk worlds.  I say character, because these are folks known for their idiosyncrasies.  Wasserman called on colleagues as diverse as Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti, and the writer Studs Terkel.  Wasserman led the band, worked with each performer on choosing the material, composing, and recording.  No wonder it took significant time.  It is a unique set.

The words chosen weren't a random bunch.  Instead they were thematic, pieces by Guthrie about people he met, and from the 1940's.  It gives you a snapshot of the times, and of course since it's Woody Guthrie, it isn't the movie stars or politicians of the history books, or even the soldiers.  It's a New York voice too, Guthrie more settled than in his youth.  And he's there as well, of course.  The funniest number is one of desire:  "I need an awfully liberal woman/I need a social conscious woman/To ease my revolutionary mind."

At this point I have to inform the fans of the Bragg/Wilco discs that this one won't make you as happy.  Rather than the sympathetic lefty folk mixed with alt-country coolness, here we get a crash course in New Weird America.  Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello is the one to tackle Woody's libido on Ease My Revolutionary Mind, while Franti does his hippie-jazz-rap on Union Love Juice, which starts "I am the meat and the flower of sex", Guthrie trying to do something James Joyce on the little peoples.  Terkel is on board to narrate a short story from the street, accompanied by Wasserman's bass and Don Heffington's drums.  Jackson Browne got handing a text that ran several chapters, and edited it down, but it was still an insane 15 minutes. 

Hats off to Guthrie and Wasserman;  this isn't a typical tribute filled with star names and bland covers, but rather a challenging and ultimately rewarding work of art.  We see a side of Guthrie we don't normally consider, and it's an addition to his legacy rather than just a reminder.

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