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Billy Bragg revisiting Wilco, 'Mermaid Avenue' songs

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Billy Bragg.jpgEarly in October 1997, Billy Bragg and his manager, Peter Jenner, finished a couple of concerts in Pennsylvania and jumped into a car. Bragg and the band Wilco had not yet begun recording their groundbreaking reinventions of Woody Guthrie songs, and Bragg had to see something before they started.

In a couple days, they were knocking around Okemah, Okla., Guthrie's birthplace -- walking Main Street to see Woody's name carved in the cement back in the '20s, picking over the overgrown ruins of his childhood home.

BILLY BRAGG
• 8 p.m. June 22-23
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
• Tickets: $36-$40; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org

People in Okemah are used to this. Guys with guitars make the pilgrimage year-round. The house is in ruins largely because so many wanna-be folkies have carried off its stones as souvenirs. Bragg, a noted British folk-rocker for more than three decades now, only turned heads when he flashed his accent.

"It seemed to me that if we were going to get in close to Woody then we needed to come and at least see Okemah," Bragg told me that day. He also came up to Tulsa, where I was writing then, and a great tip lead to a long interview. "You can read so much both of what Woody wrote about Oklahoma and what subsequent biographers have written, but we wanted to actually come down here and see what it looks like now -- take that contemporary feel away with us -- and to go out to Okemah and walk the streets that Woody walked and talk to the people about how they feel about him ... We're just trying to get a feel for it."

Bragg channeled that feel into the first volume of "Mermaid Avenue," recorded the following January and released in June 1998. This was the first major, full-length record using lyrics from the then-freshly opened Woody Guthrie Archives, songs for which Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land") wrote down the words but not the tunes.

To add to the proper Americana feel of the newly crafted music, Bragg recruited Chicago's Wilco. With only two albums out, Wilco then was still saddled as "rootsy." After "Mermaid Avenue," the band began moving in fresher musical directions on the high-waterline albums "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

For "Mermaid Avenue," Bragg and Wilco recorded dozens of tracks. Fifteen were released initially, and another 15 on "Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2" (2000). Two months ago, a box set was released featuring both volumes, plus a third (17 more songs) and a DVD of the album's making-of documentary, "Man in the Sand."

Their collaboration paved the way for scores of others -- a wide range of musicians who have since spelunked through the Archives and revived hundreds of Guthrie's thousands of lost songs. Lou Reed, Rob Wasserman, Jonatha Brooke, Nellie McCay, Michael Franti, the Klezmatics, the Dropkick Murphys, Corey Harris, Natalie Merchant, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, David Amram, even Jeff Tweedy's former partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar -- all have posthumously collaborated with Guthrie in the years since "Mermaid Avenue."

It was a difficult beginning, though. "Man in the Sand," an odd film, documents the difficult "Mermaid" recording sessions. Tensions ran a bit high between Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett; by the end of the film they're not speaking, and there's no real explanation.

"When Nora approached me, the deal I made was that I chose the musicians," Bragg told me later, in July 1998. "She was very concerned that this not sound like a tribute record. Tributes are nice ideas, but they're often focused on the personalities of the people who record them. We wanted to focus on the artist."

So why Wilco?

"They sound like the ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt band," Bragg said. "Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter, too. He really understood what we were doing."

This year is the centennial of Guthrie's birth, with months of celebrations are scheduled across the country, including last month's Guthrie tribute at Metro with Tom Morello as well as next weekend's 100th Birthday Celebration back at the Old Town School featuring Nora Guthrie, Bucky Halker and more (7:30 p.m. June 30, $21-$25). So Bragg is back on the road in America playing some of the "Mermaid Avenue" songs. His concerts feature one set of his own songs, another of Guthrie's.

If you have high hopes of Wilco members joining Bragg during either of his two shows this weekend in Chicago, it's not to be. The band has its own two-night stand this weekend at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. Wilco still plays "Mermaid Avenue" songs on rare occasions.

Bragg also will be leading a songwriting workshop titled "Why Write a Song? The Art of Communication in the Digital Age" at 11 a.m. June 23 in Szold Hall at the Old Town School. Registration is $35 at (773) 728-6000 and oldtownschool.org.


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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