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Austin Chronicle Billy Bragg & Wilco

By Raoul Hernandez

JULY 13, 1998: 

Billy Bragg & Wilco

Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

A collection of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs, Mermaid Avenue might not live up to a scholar's idea of Guthrie's legend - He the Father to Dylan's Son and Springsteen's Holy Ghost - but it's nevertheless perfect within its parameters: Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and Wilco. Especially Wilco. With the same mulchy, live-in-the-basement sound for which the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street is still so celebrated, the foundation of Mermaid Avenue is Wilco's congenial rock & roll swagger, featuring pianos, harps, lap steel guitars, banjos, fiddles, and bouzouki. "Walt Whitman's Niece" establishes that sound right off the bat with its jamboree stomp coming off as loose and easy as Guthrie's words through Billy Bragg's resolute delivery. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who splits lead vocal duties with Bragg (Natalie Merchant contributes the tiebreaking 15th tune), sounds even more at home on "California Stars," a wistful campfire ballad that should go head-to-head with Bragg's haunting "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" at Triple A radio. From there Mermaid Avenue wanders nostalgically down the path of Guthrie's nonsensical children's songs ("Hoodoo Voodoo"), romantic reveries ("Ingrid Bergman"), and feelin' sorry melancholy ("At My Window Sad and Lonely"). There's a great Band song in "One by One," with lines like "One by one the days are slipping up behind you, one by one the sweetest days of life go by," while "Another Man's Done Gone" finds Tweedy sounding like Paul McCartney from Let It Be. "Christ for President" is the album's most overtly political tune, followed by "I Guess I Planted" with its raucous chorus of "Union song, union battled," and the steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor set ending, "The Unwanted Guest." Mermaid Avenue has no pretensions of becoming a Library of Congress historical accounting of Guthrie the activist and modern day folk (music) hero. Rather, like Willie Nelson's version of "Philadelphia Lawyer" from 1988's terrific tribute to Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter, Folkways: A Vision Shared, or Butch Hancock singing "Belle Starr" on Dejadisc's local sleeper from 1993, Pastures of Plenty: An Austin Celebration of Woody Guthrie, Mermaid Avenue plays sincere tribute to a man who believed that a person and a song could make a difference. Thirty-one years after his death, Woody Guthrie still does.

3.5 stars - Raoul Hernandez

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