Billy Bragg

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| Billy Bragg has always insisted on his right to play both snarling protest anthems and sensitive love songs. His latest project, the inspired album "Mermaid Avenue," sets out to show the world that Dust Bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie also had multiple personalities -- that he was a "whole man" and not just a cardboard icon for the causes of the left.

Good as "Mermaid Avenue" is, the music that Bragg and his collaborators from Wilco wrote for long-lost lyrics from the Guthrie archive sounds even better in the new arrangements Bragg is showcasing on tour. At San Francisco's labor-history-drenched Maritime Hall Saturday, Bragg and his band, the Blokes (including venerable keyboardist Ian McLagan from the original Small Faces), tore up about half the music from "Mermaid Avenue" and re-imagined it, transforming the sometimes flat plod of Wilco's homespun beats into wilder and more far-ranging sounds.

The bare-bones folk of "Eisler on the Go" became a spectral soul plaint, with spooky syncopations that nodded in the direction of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives." "Hoodoo Voodoo's" loping boogie turned into a maniacal ska workout with a polka bringing up the rear. The revival-meeting sing-along of "Christ for President" emerged with a funky groove. "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" -- "Mermaid Avenue's" most haunting moment -- shed its lyricism for a burst of speed rock. "California Stars" had a new bounce in its step -- and a new chorus of "This Land Is Your Land" sung in Spanish as a kind of historical footnote.

Bragg -- whose set also included a healthy dose of his own songs, both political and romantic -- peppered the show with jokes about Pinochet's arrest ("I hope it ruins Henry Kissinger's retirement"), Monica's dress, Jesse Ventura and Kenneth Starr as a "sheet sniffer." For all his roots in punk distortion and singer-songwriter earnestness, Bragg has become a sterling entertainer in his own right. But his current act -- channeling the forgotten spirit of Woody Guthrie into the body of a millennial rock 'n' roller -- moves beyond simple words and tunes into a realm of decades-spanning magic.

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The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

-->By Stacey Kors | It happens to all of us: At some point in our lives, the popular music of our generation metamorphoses into the muzak of "easy listening" stations. One of the biggest culprits in this mysterious movement is also one of the most unlikely -- Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Founded by Sir Thomas Beecham and boasting the patronage of the Queen Mum herself, the RPO has a bizarre, Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to its music-making, performing Bartsk at London's Royal Albert Hall one day and recording kitschy compilations of orchestra-arranged pop songs the next.

Because the material chosen tends to lend itself easily to the genre, the transformation of mega-hits into mall music is relatively inoffensive. (I, for one, would have a hard time distinguishing between a Phil Collins original and Phil Collins "lite.") Also while the ironies inherent in "Material Girl: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Madonna" are substantial enough to fill a Camille Paglia essay, they also seem to be entirely lost on the RPO. The orchestra celebrates the controversy surrounding the feminist pop icon's music in its liner notes, then turns around and reduces that very same music to its most basic, tuneful components in actual performance. If this recording serves no other purpose, it proves that Madonna's melodies can stand on their own, no matter how uninspired the arrangement. But when various orchestra members put down their instruments to clap along, gospel-style, to such controversial songs as "Papa Don't Preach" and "Like a Prayer," it's simply demeaning to the cultural significance -- good, bad or otherwise -- of the music, and musician, that defined a decade.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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