Woody’s Children. This is what Pete Seeger called the performers of the 1960s like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and so many others, who brought back the folk tradition by singing old American folk songs and writing new songs in the old traditions.
The other night I saw Woody’s Grandchildren – some of the leaders of the current Americana roots music tradition. Performers who can sing the old folk songs and who write new songs in the old traditions while still being very much of the 21st century.
This wasn’t my first time at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University but it’s been many years since I’ve been in this space. rtb and I were in the balcony but it’s an intimate space with great sound and sightlines. The room wasn’t full when the show began – a lot of people showed up after 8pm (the show began at 7:30pm) but even then there were a lot of empty seats. A lot of people were there for Justin Townes Earle and I could tell from the conversations in front of me and behind me that the people had never heard of Joe Pug or The Low Anthem.
Justin Townes Earle opened the show with a solo version of “Wanderin’” and I don’t think you could have found a straighter line from Woody Guthrie to today. Justin told us that he’d been asked by Nora Guthrie to put together a show of songs inspired by Woody Guthrie – we wouldn’t be hearing any of Woody’s songs – but we would be hearing Woody’s spirit in a new generation of artists.
Next, Joe Klein read from a few pages from his book Woody Guthrie: A Life, which is the only officially authorized biography of Woody. Klein’s words gave us a sense of the real Woody – a flawed man with a genius talent.
Joe Pug is another straight line from Woody with his not pretty voice singing songs about the poor and disenfranchised. Pug said that Woody invented his job and Woody was the first to take the American folk style and marry it to American poetry in the style of Walt Whitman. Pug is one of those artists who is as interesting to listen to with his between songs patter as he is with his songs. He asked if anyone knew Woody’s motto. One guy said he knew and I knew the guy was going to say the wrong thing. “This Machine Kills Fascists” was written on Woody’s guitar, it was not his motto. The motto was “Take it easy, but take it.” Pug said the last time he saw Justin was in Australia (they were touring) and Justin was getting “This Machine Kills Fascists” tattooed on his ribcage. Pug opened with “Nation of Heat” and also sang “Hymn #101.” It was a short set with only about six songs.
The Low Anthem also played a short set and they weren’t much for the patter. Both The Low Anthem and Joe Pug won some converts at this concert. Ben Knox Miller (lead singer, organ, saw, harmonica) has short hair and was clean-shaven and looking the best I’ve ever seen him. Along with Jeff Prystowsky (stand up bass, organ, tom, croatales, percussion), Jocie Adams (clarinet, hammer dulcimer), and Mat Davidson (guitar, stand up bass) started with “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books” “Smart Flesh” and “Matter of Time”. They played some new songs from the new album they’ve been working on and finished with “Boeing 737” (you could see the audience sit up and take notice – I wish they hadn’t chosen so many ‘quiet’ songs) and “This God Damned House.” As soon as Ben said that they were playing a song written by former member Dan Lefkowitz I knew what was coming. Ben did the cell phone trick with his and Jeff’s phones. He didn’t ask the audience to participate. I don’t know if that’s because he knew the audience wasn’t familiar with the trick or because it’s become too much to have the audience take part.
Justin and his band finished the show. It’s a new band and I didn’t catch the name of the musicians – they’re all men – stand-up bass, electric guitar, and drums. They may be on the new album. Since I bought it through iTunes I don’t have the credits (something I hate about buying albums digitally). Since Woody spent so much time in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Justin played his songs about Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. He played a song he wrote when he was 15 years old. He performed “Memphis in the Rain” while telling us that that is a town where he can’t go because he always gets in trouble. I was beginning to think that he should stay out of NYC also. For most of the night he was drinking from a water bottle and during the encore he drank from a paper cup but during his entire performance he was doing the rambling and constant walking that I’ve seen him do when he was drinking. I don’t know if he’s in trouble again but I worry about him. I hope I’m wrong.
He played a lot of songs from his new album including “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” When Justin played The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” he said that this was a band that Woody would have liked. Everyone came out to sing “Harlem River Blues.” The encore was a solo acoustic performance of “Unfortunately, Anna.”
After all the energy of The Old 97’s earlier that week this could have been a letdown. It wasn’t. It was quiet but it was a wonderful tribute to an American icon.
By Carene Lydia Lopez