Billy Bragg/ Amy Rigby | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Billy Bragg/ Amy Rigby

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BILLY BRAGG/AMY RIGBY

I've never been able to stomach Billy Bragg's own music, a mix of the self-righteous and the prosaic that always comes off like agitprop Mad Libs. But I deeply enjoy Mermaid Avenue (Elektra), his collaboration with Wilco on original music for previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. While "I Guess I Planted" is just the sort of labor anthem you'd expect, the bulk of the collection offers a more intimate side of Guthrie--and as a result Bragg now seems like somebody you might have a talk with over a beer instead of someone who talks at you. Guthrie's touching fantasy about Ingrid Bergman ("Ingrid Bergman"), his lascivious tale of a young folksinger who uses his music to seduce girls ("Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"), and the way his sense of wonder about one woman expands into a rosy utopian vision ("She Came Along to Me") are all the work of someone thoroughly engaged by the world. Bragg and Wilco made no attempt to compose period music, instead delivering a rootsy blend of styles as warmly familiar to their generation as one of Guthrie's talking blues would be to his. Opening act Amy Rigby, unlike Bragg, has a knack for the intimate: her first album, Diary of a Mod Housewife, observed the decline of a marriage, and her new Middlescence (Koch) grapples with the aftereffects. A far cry from the postsplit shit slinging of Richard Thompson, Rigby's observations tend toward the humorous ("As Is," about outfitting the kids in irregulars) and the poignant ("What I Need," about balancing romantic needs with the demands of single motherhood). She surveys the wreckage with an affecting mix of sobriety, hope, and wit, all set to country-and-pop hooks. Plus, her "The Summer of My Wasted Youth" will strike a chord with anyone who didn't don a suit the day after graduation. Friday, 10 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Billy Bragg photo by Pennie Smith; Amy Rigby photo by George DuBose.

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