The Circle's Still Unbroken 

Guthrie and Garcia memorialized by CD releases

click to enlarge 'til we outnumber 'em
  • 'til we outnumber 'em

'til we outnumber 'em
Various Artists
Righteous Babe Records

After almost four years and endless miles of red tape, Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records has fought the good fight and has finally released recordings from a late 1996 Woody Guthrie tribute performance. The Severance Hall concert brought together musicians, actors, authors, artists and activists to sing the songs and recount the stories of one of the most, if not the most, influential men in American music.

Woody Guthrie's songbook was laid out at the concert by such talent as Guthrie friend and student Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen, David Pirner, Billy Bragg and the Indigo Girls, and the songs they chose to perform give the collection a decidedly optimistic and celebratory feel. While only one song on the album doesn't address serious issues -- Springsteen's rendition of the children's song "Riding in My Car" -- the musicians were able to eloquently express the qualities that transformed Guthrie's songs from melodic bouts of storytelling to tools of powerful social change. Ramblin' Jack Elliott's somber performance of "1913 Massacre" is counterbalanced by his proud version of "Talking Dust Bowl," a song that simply, flatly expresses the strength of the human spirit when faced with hunger, cold and the fight for dignity.

One of the last musicians that might come to mind when pondering traditional folk music is Bruce Springsteen, but removed from the New Jersey turnpike and given only an acoustic guitar to play, The Boss turns out strong, honest performances. His no frills, blue collar voice melds beautifully with the plaintive melody "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," and makes you wonder why he ever got into rock in the first place.

Arlo Guthrie performs "Dust Bowl Disaster," but appears more frequently speaking between songs about his father's music and the impact his life had on so many. Craig Werner and Fred Hellerman also lend their insight and experiences. The most moving moments of the recording occur when Peter Glazer and Tim Robbins read Woody's words from his personal writings and memoir.

Billy Bragg has added music to "Against the Law," a previously unperformed song that is also included on the new Mermaid Avenue, Volume II collection. "Hard Travelin' Hootenanny" and "This Land is Your Land," both performed by the entire Severance Hall cast, draw your hands together and your feet into motion, close your eyes and fill your heart with joy.

Guthrie's timeless lyrics, so basic and accessible, touch something within every one of us, creating a sense of togetherness and strength. His vision and unshakable faith move us to change our world. As producer DiFranco points out in the liner notes, the work, life and music of Woody Guthrie is too important to fall into a state of dusty legend -- it must be played, appreciated, taught and kept alive. And not just for the sake of the memory of Woody Guthrie, but for the sake of all the good that he did, and still continues to do.

click to enlarge Mermaid Avenue, Volume II
  • Mermaid Avenue, Volume II

Mermaid Avenue, Volume II
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Elektra Records

The release of Mermaid Avenue, Volume II pretty much cements Woody Guthrie as one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. Widely considered as the most influential of American folk musicians, Guthrie not only popularized folk music as we know it today, but inspired artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and just about everyone in between.

In 1998, when Billy Bragg and Wilco released Mermaid Avenue, setting a collection of previously unreleased Guthrie lyrics to music, they were not sure how the project would be received. To date, however, that CD has sold over 350,000 copies. So with the help of Guthrie's daughter, Nora, keeper of Guthrie's archives, they did it again.

Like its predecessor, Volume II has Bragg and Wilco setting yet another round of previously unheard lyrics to music, displaying the whimsical, humorous side of Guthrie, and Guthrie the fierce social critic. Woody's passion for baseball can be heard in "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again." A song simply titled "My Flying Saucer," shows his sillier side, and "Meanest Man in the World" is downright mean and nasty. As if to compensate, the CD also includes two very beautiful love songs. And rounding out the eclectic mood is a borderline heavy metal tune appropriately called "All You Fascists."

Musically, Volume II has more to bite on than its predecessor. Styles range from pop to acoustic to borderline heavy-metal. All leave you either humming, whistling or tapping your fingers, stomping your foot or entrenched in thought. Voice contributions from Natalie Merchant complement Billy Bragg and Wilco who have successfully done it again, capturing the essence and energy of Guthrie's formidable words and putting them to memorable music.

click to enlarge The Pizza Tapes
  • The Pizza Tapes

The Pizza Tapes
Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice
Acoustic Disc

David Grisman is the keeper of an apparently bottomless source of recorded jam sessions with Jerry Garcia, and although his mining of this wellspring seems borderline exploitative, it's impossible to complain while the music plays.

The latest release features the fruits of a relaxed two-night session with Garcia, Grisman and the great bluegrass guitar picker, Tony Rice. And although Grisman's mandolin is by no means invisible on the album, he steps back and lets the meeting of the two peerless guitarists shine as the project's guiding light. "It's a trip seeing you guys together," he says early in the session, and Garcia responds that "This is going to be a hoot."

Though there are few finished, perfected cuts emerging out of these sessions, the spirit of improvisation is captured throughout, and the exploratory jams that precede songs and the "Space" jams sprinkled amidst the tracks are at least as interesting as hearing the trio tackle the traditional classics of the folk, bluegrass, and jazz canons, from George Gershwin to Miles Davis, from Lefty Frizzell to Bob Dylan. Whatever the genre, Rice's licks are incomprehensibly clean, inventive, and lickety-split quick. As the explosive "Shady Grove" comes to a close, Garcia is heard practically panting from the effort to keep up, exclaiming "Oh gosh, oh jeez! Try to restrain yourself, Tony. Oh man, that was great, smokin'!"

Without being over indulgent, Grisman kept the tape rolling to capture the interaction between the musicians during the breaks, and it's a treat to hear Garcia's matter-of-fact query to Rice, "Okay, shall we noodle at the beginning?" before breaking into a nine-minute version of Gershwin's "Summertime." "We was delving. Doing some serious delving," muses Garcia.

It's rare to hear Garcia challenged and complemented so consistently, but the song selection puts Rice on home turf. Garcia had his acoustic chops in top form as well, having spent two or three years renewing his musical relationship with Grisman by the time these sessions were recorded in February of 1993. There was idle talk of doing more with the trio, but they never got together again before Garcia's death two years later.

Garcia loosens up considerably over the course of the sessions, letting the fret boards and guitar strings carry the burden of his delightful dialogue with Rice. Before long, his patient responses to his two peers gives way to an unabashed enthusiasm as he laughs in awe, proclaiming "Shit, I'm having a great time. Tony, it's a fucking pleasure playing with you man." Rice's soft-spoken response is a simple "Likewise."

The tapes were not meant for release, but have circulated on the bootleg circuit for years, allegedly brought to light by a pizza delivery boy who swiped some cassettes from Garcia's kitchen counter. These original masters from Grisman's home studio are top quality recordings, and a must have for anyone who appreciates this kind of raw, unedited musical journey, where delving into the process is as much fun as polishing up the product.


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