Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions Review

Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Still digging it: this is musical archaeology that’s full of life.

Ninian Dunnett 2012

Thirty years after his death, Woody Guthrie was a distant memory when Mermaid Avenue came out in 1998. But he’s never been far away. You can hear the original Depression troubadour in the dustbowl romanticism and blue-collar unrest of every alt-country band that’s picked up a guitar – and the recession of a new century seems a good time to be remembering that. Bob Dylan has come almost full-circle, back to the folk and blues with which he first channelled Guthrie as a teenager, and Springsteen has turned out This Land is Your Land at SXSW. But nobody has picked up on Woody as effectively – or unexpectedly – as this transatlantic get-together.

Back in 98, the idea was simple: winnow out the best of the thousands of lyrics Guthrie had written without music, and turn them into songs. The first album’s success spurred Mermaid Avenue Vol. II in 2000. And this package adds in the unreleased, more-ragged final 17 tracks from the sessions (including some non-Guthrie folk standards), without dimming the charm of the original.

Wilco’s languid, dogged strumming and Jeff Tweedy’s now yearning, now rabble-rousing vocal perfectly capture the Guthrie that has seeped into every crack and crevice of Americana. But it is Billy Bragg – the one who is an anachronism, really, a banner-waving socialist in a 21st century world of indie brats and pop divas – who guards the soul of this resurrection. The Englishman can spit the word “fascists” with rare contempt, even if few listeners will feel the political charge the word once carried. But he brings a British folk lyricism, too, that deepens and sweetens the brew.

The words show Woody’s range, from inspired poetry to rhyme-free rambling. But like a time-machine Basement Tapes, the free-flowing musical clamjamfry buoys up the folk icon in a way that makes a virtue out of inconsistency. There are memorable contributions from Natalie Merchant, Eliza Carthy and Corey Harris. And at root, really, it isn’t about musical taste any more than it’s about politics. Bawdy, smart, big-hearted and mischievous, Mermaid Avenue is simply all about a personality that is rich with life.

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