Lavishing their chops and charm on the unpublished lyrics of Woody Guthrie in two volumes of Mermaid Avenue, collaborators Billy Bragg and Wilco make a piece of history our own. Whether playing an irate hotel janitor who quits in fury at a brutal death on “Hot Rod Hotel,” personifying human weakness by letting his voice splinter in two as he warns his lover of an oncoming tornado in “Black Wind Blowing,” or putting a snarly new face on “All You Fascists,” Bragg proves there’s power in deference. As he said at his solo gig on New Year’s Eve at the Bottom Line, he’s a songwriter first and a singer second, but he embodies Woody’s stories without hiding behind them. Guthrie’s elaborate ruse as common man laid plain that he was a genius; Bragg’s construction is much simpler because it’s closer to the truth. Braver, too.
That bravery masqueraded as nervousness in a requests-only set that was equal parts solidarity and magnanimity. I pined for the brevity and daring of Sarah Harmer’s opening act when Bragg wasted his first hour by performing only six songs. He twittered aimlessly—George W. Bush looks like Alfred E. Neuman? Tell me something I don’t know. But when the clock struck, he started channeling his energy and sincerity. He adapted “Great Leap Forward” to our dismal election; then transitioned a wistful “Minor Key” into a lullaby of “Jabberwocky” for his small son who sat cross-legged on the sidelines, and “As Long As You Hold Me” paid tribute to Kirsty MacColl, a friend and influence who died unexpectedly in December. “Shirley,” the finale, celebrated Bragg’s modest persona as a singles artist as well as promised his return—to the protagonist and to his audience.
I also never understood how well Bragg the organizer held his own against the romancer and the interpreter until he bent down low onstage, strumming his electric guitar as if it were a harp, for “There Is Power in a Union.” Back when I labored as a union lackey, Bragg only sang about the boss’s lackeys, and although we both know there’s a difference, we never mention it. There’s not enough popular music for lefties as it is; why scare anyone away? Blinders off, I know what went wrong: A democratic movement within the larger organization I worked for was decimated at our convention, and my local was under a DOL investigation for petty stuff—nightmares that never dirtied Woody’s cuffs, fortunately. Now I work in a high school down the street from a closed Swingline factory that’s been taken over by MOMA to store art objects and maybe stash a few nonunion jobs in the process. When Bragg yells on Mermaid II‘s “Stetson Kennedy,” “I ain’t the worlds best writer nor the worlds best speller But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller,” he’s speaking for all the write-in candidates who make democracy better, not to mention himself. Fact is, we still need all the Billys we can get. —Georgia Christgau
2001: A Party Odyssey. No apocalyptic glitches to report, but 52nd Street was blockaded and 5-0 denied me entrée, then let a Caucasian dandy pass. Somehow I reached my destination—Roseland’s New Year’s Eve fete. But then this boîte’s metal detectors chirped: My date’s cellular. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” bubbled in my skull. But the veggie spread persuaded me to endure the evening’s Starting 5: Dream, the Sugar Hill Gang, Ludacris, Black Rob, and a to-be-named last-minute sub.
Delayed 40 minutes, it was evident thangs might fall apart. But the resilient crowd pulsed with teen spirit as Hot 97’s Jazzy Joyce kneaded two Technics. Finally, Puff Daddy’s affirmative-action act, Dream, sauntered out performing Rhythm Nation gyrations while lip-synching out of sync, though audience member Lance from ‘N Sync could’ve provided oral moral support.
Masking continentally drifting midriffs with Negro League jerseys, the Sugar Hill Gang captivated these toddlers with a reverential old-school medley. Exhuming hip-hop tanzanites like “White Lines,” their choral flow obliterated Grandmaster Flash’s prophetic intimacy and imbued this classic with a wistful evanescence oddly reminiscent of “California Dreamin’.” They exited to the boogady beat—Chic’s lithe bass figure—that put rap on world atlases. (Every crew resorted to 15-minute snippets, saving their big—or for some only—hits for last.) Alas, Ease = MC2.
The last three performers were largely adrift in a monsoon of loops and beats. Ludacris’s muddled, dirty Southern hospitality became trenchant as the syncopated fusillade “What’s Your Fantasy” gushed from this hyperbolic satyr. Sporting sable coat and Kangol, that Shining Black Prince, Black Rob, called to mind “What’s Going On?”-era Marvin Gaye—gravitas not included. His posse stomped and Jazzy’s Technics stuttered, so Rob went dolo and bellowed his smash-mouth anthem “Whoa.” Nelly was the no-show. So Lil’ Kim, a feminist delf-parody replete with Gucci designer coochie, sashayed out with Lil’ Cease and dropped a lil’ something, in keeping with the evening’s finger food for thought.
The future is invariably viewed through the tinted glass of the past. Bad Boy, which represented three-fifths of the night’s bill, was once king of the hill. Mase got religion, Shyne got indicted, Puffy’s on trial. Lil’ Kim can’t hide the sense of abandonment in what she spits; Black Rob can’t escape the comparisons to that baddest of Bad Boys, Biggie. As I left, I thought, Is this the half-life after death? —David Mills
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2001