A vet­eran rocker’s folkie project was just one of many re­mark­able roots al­bums of 2006, writes Joe Breen

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC2006 -

WHO would have be­lieved five years ago that Bruce Spring­steen would lead a rag­tag team of tra­di­tional play­ers across the US and Europe to re­new the legacy of Pete Seeger – and, in the process, give po­lit­i­cal roots mu­sic its great­est boost? The shows sell out ev­ery­where they go and the au­di­ence join in on songs about unions, work­ing, liv­ing, ex­ploita­tion, dy­ing, laugh­ing. It’s a re­mark­able sight and an amaz­ing achieve­ment. A whole cat­a­logue of songs has been re­born un­der the shadow of war, poverty and un­ease. And the man re­spon­si­ble is none other than one of the great Amer­i­can rock stars.

What made Spring­steen take this jour­ney of dis­cov­ery and re­newal? As any close ob­server of his ca­reer knows, there has al­ways been a strong nar­ra­tive as­pect to his work. Greet­ings from As­bury Park, NJ, his so- lo de­but, and its fol­low-up, The Wild, the In­no­cent and the E-Street Shuf­fle, both con­tained songs that leaned heav­ily on the folk tra­di­tion and sto­ry­board lyrics that seemed to run off at the mouth. Born to Run com­pressed this lyri­cal rich­ness into a cin­e­matic vi­sion and gave it a rock star shape.

Yet the sto­ry­teller in Spring­steen re­mained alive, and has con­tin­ued to pros­per through­out his ca­reer. Ne­braska, his DIY acous­tic album of dark­ness, fate and death in­spired by Woody Guthrie and Flan­nery O’Con­nor, buys deeply into the Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tion, both in sound and vi­sion. It is the same with The Ghost of Tom Joad. Th­ese are not just side projects, ex­er­cises in van­ity and lib­eral val­ues. On the con­trary, they are cen­tral to un­der­stand­ing the Spring­steen ethos and how he ends up on stage in his late 50s singing songs that were last pop­u­lar 50 years pre­vi­ously.

In it­self, We Shall Over­come: The Seeger Ses­sions breaks lit­tle new ground. How­ever, it does en­able Spring­steen to patch him­self into the long and il­lus­tri­ous line of the US folk tra­di­tion, from Woody to Pete to Bruce with a nod to Bob, the mer­cu­rial clown for­ever on the out­side. And, though Spring­steen has done won­ders for the mu­sic, the mu­sic in re­turn has also given him a rea­son to be­lieve. Not since the hey­day of the E-Street Band in the late ’70s/early ’80s has Bruce Spring­steen looked so happy.

His Bob­ness was suit­ably both states­man­like and mys­te­ri­ous on his long-awaited and im­me­di­ately ac­claimed Mod­ern Times. And for once he lived up to the script. Neil Young just threw out the script and be­came head cheer­leader for the anti-war brigade with his hard-hit­ting Liv­ing with War. The great Malian singer Ali Farka Toure waved good­bye to the world with Sa­vane, an album of brood­ing in­ten­sity that was both lo­cal and uni­ver­sal.

It was a year for the age­ing greats – or, any­way, it seemed to help to be old but not dead. Guy Clark am­bled back to his best and JJ Cale and Eric Clap­ton trun­dled out an album of con­tem­po­rary blues full of sear­ing gui­tar so­los and rum­bling rhythms; it was like the last 20 years had never hap­pened.

For Andy Fair­weather-Low, cer­tainly lit­tle hap­pened. Not in his solo ca­reer, any­way. He reme­died that with Sweet Soul­ful Mu­sic, a mov­ing and in­spired fol­low-up to his last ef­fort, Mega She­bang, 26 years ear­lier. This is roots mu­sic at its most eclec­tic and en­joy­able – old timey, funky, bluesy, soul­ful and gospelly, with in­ci­sive hon­est lyrics to match and a rasp­ing voice of un­fail­ing grace and courage. I loved it and still do. It is ar­guable whether it is the best album of the year. but it’s my favourite by miles.

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