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