Woody Guthrie probably never saw an audience pogo to “This Land Is Your Land,” but he definitely would have appreciated the sight at Wednesday night’s Guthrie tribute in New York: As surprise guest Tom Morello (in his acoustic Nightwatchman guise) led all of the evening’s artists through a raucous version of the anthem at the end of the evening, he told the Webster Hall crowd to “jump the fuck up,” and they complied.
Right before that, Billy Bragg performed a set filled with super-rare Guthrie tunes — revealing in the process that he and Wilco have enough songs recorded that they could release a third volume of their acclaimed Mermaid Avenue series of Guthrie compositions. He ended with a joyfully silly and obscene Guthrie tune in which the entire Republican party is revealed to be somehow trapped inside a bear’s ass.
The concert, a benefit for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, also included sets by the reunited Brad (with Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard), and Steve Earle. Tim Robbins — who has a surprisingly robust, Eddie Vedder-ish voice — sang some Guthrie tunes with Gossard and also served as the evening’s host, setting a politically charged tone by reading from Guthrie’s anti-war writings between performances. And the Tangents, a teen band with Robbins’ son Miles on bass, opened the show with an impressively professional set of energetic, keyboard-heavy pop tunes.
Brad’s set, which included some still-unreleased songs, showed off Gossard’s versatility — turns out it’s not just his bandmate Mike McCready who can play the blues. The band sounded like a missing link in Nineties Seattle rock, with frontman Shawn Smith’s vocals reminiscent of a rootsier Layne Staley hybrid.
Steve Earle’s solo acoustic performance hit its emotional peak with “Christmas in Washington,” which pleads “come back, Woody Guthrie” in its chorus. He also showed how much he learned from Guthrie’s rabble-rousing side, getting the crowd to sing along with “F The CC”‘s refrain of “Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA.”