Woody at 100

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Will Johnson
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Will Johnson. Photographs Louis DeCarlo.

Woody at 100. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Sarah Lee Guthrie Jay Farrar Woody at 100 concert Anders Parker Will Johnson

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Will Johnson, Jay Farrar and Anders Parker perform Chorine

Will Johnson, Jay Farrar and Anders Parker perform the Woody Guthrie penned track "Chorine" in a special Celtic Connections edition of Travelling Folk. Folk duo Spiers and Boden perform Oswestry Wake and The Morgan Rattler at City Halls for Celtic Connections 2011. Folk band Malinky performing Pad The Road Wi Me and Sweet Willie and Fair Annie live at Pacific Quay.

Richard Bull reports

Richard Bull

It was Burns Night, but at the Royal Concert Hall it was the bard of the American Dustbowl who was being celebrated.

The opening act couldn’t have been more fitting: Sarah Lee Guthrie, who’s Woody’s granddaughter and Arlo’s daughter, along with her husband Johnny Irion (plus the stand-up bass of Charlie Rose). They were great company. Their music, like all Guthrie family music, is rooted in kindness, though they’re less concerned with the now than Sarah Lee’s antecedents, more inclined to warmly timeless songwriting.

The highlight was the title track of their new CD Bright Examples, with entrancing harmonies of truly Crosby, Still & Nash proportions. Another nice touch came when they were joined by Martha and Mark of the Rafferty family, whom they’d met at the tribute to Gerry earlier in the week. Come to Celtic Connections and make new friends!

There are apparently 3000 songs without tunes collected in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York state, overseen by Sarah Lee’s aunt Nora. The latest project to mine this rich seam is the night’s main act: Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Will Johnson.

It was a performance somewhat mismatched with the venue and the audience. A small crowd was mostly hoping for a more familiar version of Woody than they got. Or a more effusively presented one. But what they got was three taciturn indie singer-songwriters ploughing through an hour of previously unheard songs. But (once any discomfort at the incongruity was overcome) what a fine set it was.

There was a preponderance of Woody’s more deathly lyrics – observations of lives destroyed by cocaine and home-made alcohol – but there was politics too (“Democracy oh democracy, lift up your head”), and touches of Woody’s more romantic side, songs of “careless, reckless love”.

In particular Jay Farrar, the man who essentially invented “alt country” two decades ago, was stunning, imbuing the songs with his own unique brand of lonesome, heightened by the harmonies and accompaniment of the other two (plus Mark Spencer on piano and guitars). The songs, all written in Woody’s demotic style, are fascinating snapshots of the man and his life and times. Amazing to think that he filled notebook after notebook with this stuff.

Jay, Anders and Will painted the songs into life with a limited palette, bleak and earnest, but it produced some beautiful works of art. They left us with Bandages and Scars, a song Jay wrote and recorded with his band Son Volt, with its entirely appropriate refrain, “the words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head”.

New Multitudes is their forthcoming CD of Woody Guthrie songs (also featuring Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket who was unable to take part in this show), but also listen to the current edition of BBC Radio Scotland's Travelling Folk to hear three songs performed live, and coming soon Another Country with Ricky Ross will feature some of the great live versions from this show.


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