Elektra Records executives lobbied hard for the just-issued Woody Guthrie commemorative postage stamp, Billy Bragg contended at the House of Blues; now, he contends they’re pushing for stamps honoring Natalie Merchant, Metallica and Old Dirty Bastard.
Bragg’s touring to promote promoting his new Elektra album, “Mermaid Avenue,” consisting of previously unheard lyrics from the Guthrie archives, with melodies by Bragg and his backing band on the album, Wilco. For the show, which stops at New York’s Bottom Line July 2, his band of former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen, three Yanks and Londoner Bragg alternated the “new” Guthrie songs with several of his own.
From the sound of the audience’s reaction, many in the full house were as familiar with songs including “Milkman of Human Kindness” from the Bragg songbook as they were anxious to hear unfamiliar material by Arlo Guthrie’s father.
The lengthy set, interrupted by Bragg’s insightful reflections on Guthrie’s place in history and the history of the project, as well as his glee at the current World Cup soccer championships, served both Guthrie and Bragg well: the songs were entertaining, showed a lot of variety, and frequently made their liberal political points. One of many highlights was “The Unwelcome Guest,” an ancient-sounding ballad of a highwayman inspired, Bragg contended, by Englishman Dick Turpin — “the man who inspired Adam Ant.”
While Bragg didn’t exactly bring Guthrie into the 1990s, he certainly often brought the music into the ’60s, with the band giving “Walt Whitman’s Niece” an arrangement suggesting the Coasters’ “Searchin’,” a New Orleans rhumba flavor to “California Stars,” and an overall feel of early electric Dylan (McLagen’s flavorful organ playing certainly helping in that respect).
Bragg says he doesn’t know why he’s categorized as “folk” (let alone “Americana”), but he certainly carries on the populist, activist tradition of Guthrie, Pete Seeger and their companions. His is certainly a “people’s” voice, more like Elvis Costello than Elvis Presley, and his thick accent might be a bit daunting at times. But neither work against the material, and perhaps the best news of all is that Bragg and Wilco have 15 more Guthrie songs in the can, and the archives include (he says) 2,500 lyrics yet to be sung.