Folk America: Greenwich Village Revisited

I’ve just returned from the second Barbican concert night of Folk America, the BBC folk series. Last night was the stompin’ kind of folk, played by the new generation. Tonight was called Greenwich Village Revisited, and featured some of the original members of the ’60s New York folk scene. It was a quieter, more thoughtful, more moving night.

On arriving I just caught the end of the Coal Porters playing in the lobby. A bluegrass version of “Teenage Kicks”? Suits me.

Tonight’s emcee was Billy Bragg. He’s always been a socially aware performer but has attained special folk status with his Mermaid Avenue projects. Billy played Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” to start the night off. The stage was made to resemble a New York coffee house. Unlike Seasick Steve the night before, Bragg didn’t hang out on stage the whole evening.

First up was Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn. He’s a class act with his jauntily-perched fedora and trimmed goatee. Age has weakened his high, ethereal voice just a touch but it’s still full of both honest heartbreak and bounce-back optimism. He played solo and covered Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, a song Odetta performed at Martin Luther King’s 1963 DC march, a Clancy Brothers tune, Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger”, and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)”. I also never wholly realised how complex the guitar parts to “Eight Miles High” are before I saw McGuinn play it tonight.

Next was Texan Carolyn Hester. Her voice was surprisingly sweet and as strong as I recall it being years ago. She sang songs of love and peace and was so down-to-earth that you had to believe her. Her version of “House of the Rising Sun” made you want to weep. When she did Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which she performed years ago with Nanci Griffith at Bob’s 30th anniversary concert, I quite honestly did well up.

After the break Bragg played a couple more tunes, then handed the stage toEric Anderson. Anderson was the artist I knew least about going into the evening. From what I heard he’s a great lyricist, but as a live performer he is – now, at least – breathy and lacking in dynamics. The fact that his songs are long make it worse. Things improved when Roger McGuinn joined him for “Thirsty Boots”. Anderson’s a great songwriter, no doubt. And I won’t write off anyone who tells stories about when Clapton and Hendrix and McGuinn all came ’round his place to jam. But it didn’t deliver the impact of the other performers.

Last was songstress Judy Collins. And I’ll be damned if her soprano voice wasn’t as clear and stratospheric as it’s always been. She started with “Both Sides Now”, the Joni Mitchell song she popularised. She continued – on guitar and piano, which I didn’t know she played so well – with songs that showcased her tender, soaring vocals. She was full of stories too, like meeting Leonard Cohen and listening to Dylan writing “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  She was classy, upbeat, and sounded great.

Judy Collins

All five performers came out to encore with an extended version of the best hymn ever, “Amazing Grace”. We sang along, because we felt it.

As last night, this show was recorded, and is planned to be shown on BBC4 on 13-Feb-09.