Folk-rockers revive Woody Guthrie at Union Transfer

Posted: March 15, 2012

New Multitudes, the album on which Jay Farrar, Jim James, Anders Parker, and Will Johnson set unused Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, is a work of intimate mystery, born of hours in the archives and sentiments that Guthrie himself either abandoned or left buried on purpose. But on stage at Union Transfer Tuesday night, the songs burst into the public sphere, pushing private thoughts into the open and converting whispers to a full-blooded shout.

The four musicians, who took equal time at the microphone, have worked together in numerous configurations - Farrar and Parker in Gob Iron, James and Johnson in Monsters of Folk - but with disparate public profiles.

James (or, as he now bills himself, Yim Yames), is, as the singer of My Morning Jacket, a bona fide rock star; Farrar, of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo and later Son Volt, is a roots-rock mainstay. Parker and Johnson, respectively of Varnaline and Centro-matic, are cult figures, playing house shows rather than arenas. But to judge from the crowd's response, many who walked into the venue knowing only James and Farrar left as new fans of their lesser-known bandmates. Johnson, in particular, drew mounting applause each time he stepped from behind his drum kit to sing lead.

As on New Multitudes, which the show's first half replicated in its entirety, Johnson's "Chorine My Sheba Queen" was a glimmering highlight, a yearning love song etched in fragile harmonies. On "Hoping Machine," whose words are drawn from Guthrie's journal entries rather than a lyric sheet, Farrar strung phrases together in thick clumps - "Music is the language of the mind that travels; it carries the key to the laws of time and space" - until the song gave way to a full-band, four-part-harmony coda.

After a break, the performers returned to the stage one at a time, each playing a single song backed by acoustic guitar. They then joined forces for five more, the last ending in a prolonged jam that tipped the scales from generous to merely excessive. But in spite of being slightly too much of a good thing, the show proved that all four musicians are worthy of following in Guthrie's footsteps, each in his own distinctive way.

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