Album Review: Billy Bragg & Wilco - Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

22 May 2012 | 5:56 pm | Mac McNaughton

Together, we uncover the essence of a classically tortured, yet brilliant songwriter.

If you've fallen out of touch with Billy Bragg of late, get ready for a shock. He is now embraced to the bosom of Americana as much as Wilco are to the playlists of the editors of Uncut magazine. To find him lovingly breathing life into previously unheard works by Woody Guthrie is akin to finding Santa wearing a blue coat – it takes just a little getting used to.

This four-disc set gathers three volumes of Bragg and Wilco's excursions into Guthrie songbooks, the product of a discovery by Woody's daughter, Nora, of an exhaustive archive of unused lyrics and notebooks. The first set works well to ease one onto the back porch as an empathic introduction. Jeff Tweedy's vocals on California Stars qualifies as a modern classic, while former 10,000 Maniac Natalie Merchant is a fine duetting partner on Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key. Volumes II and III dig deeper with earthier tales from his hoboing, philandering years, sozzled with an abundance of slide guitars, hickory and bourbon one probably expected from the first disc. The production on these sessions is less polished yet more heartbreaking as Guthrie cries foul on the Bible bashers (Feed Of Man), experiences degradation as a porter (Hot Rod Hotel) and wages war Dylan-style (All You Fascists).

The DVD contains the documentary, Man In the Sand, narrated with some bottled emotion by Nora. She tells the unheard stories of Woody found in his notes, of his various addictions to women, booze and a constant need to escape, to find himself. We see Bragg's own odyssey to discover the 'real' Woody Guthrie and, together, we uncover the essence of a classically tortured, yet brilliant songwriter.