Saturday, August 15, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 25)

25. "California Stars"
Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Year: 1998

I'm not going to insult you by puffing myself up as this huge early adopter of Wilco. Uncle Tupelo had a sound I wasn't into at the time, and I didn't even have 'A.M.' when 'Mermaid Avenue' came out. I did own 'Being There,' and I thought a handful of the songs were really good, especially "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." Overall, though, I thought the double album was a mixed bag. My shelves weren't crammed with the works of Billy Bragg either. 'Brewing Up...' was all I had, and that was purchased on the strength of one song, "Love Gets Dangerous." Incidentally, still love that one. Anyway, it was upon my first listen of today's song that, instantly, I became a real fan. On the chance that either Wilco or Bragg on their own should come up later in the countdown, I'm going to leave it at that.

Most of you already know the story of how the 'Mermaid Avenue' albums came about. So, I'll keep this brief. Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora, had piles of lyrics he never used. She gave Bragg access to the unused words after he had performed a passionate tribute to Guthrie. Wilco accepted Bragg's invitation to join him. Some of the music was written by Bragg, some by Wilco and some were collaborations. "California Stars" was mainly written by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, but Bragg did perform on the song. The sessions were recorded in Dublin, Chicago and Boston, and there was a well done 1999 documentary on the recordings called 'Man in the Sand' that is part of a 'Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions' box set. The name 'Mermaid Avenue' came from the Coney Island street where Guthrie once lived. He also had a song called "Mermaid's Avenue." That ought to get the uninitiated up to speed.

I have never seen Bragg live, but I have taken in about a dozen Wilco shows. "California Stars" has been played at every one of them, and it has always been the highlight for me. I have quite a few live recordings of the song but would like to keep it in the decade. So, as a bonus, here is a performance Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett did at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music on July 25, 1999. As you'll hear from Tweedy, Steve Earle followed them. Must have been quite a night.

"California Stars" (Live)


Uncle E said...

Fantastic choice! I only started getting into Wilco with A Ghost is Born, and worked my way backwards from there. With Billy I am proud to say I became a fan early on, with Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. I think I read a review that described him as " a one man Clash", and I've been hooked ever since. Aside from this song, I much prefer the Bragg interpretations, but this song tops all. Great post!

kevinpat said...

Sweet song from an album I don't listen to enough. Kinda got down in the pile, if you know what I mean. First thing I always think of is that this is a track from a Traveling Wilburys' album…. Missing is that Liverpool droll of George though. I'll have to dig this out for a better listen tomorrow. Like Seinfeld and chocolate my friends don't understand why I'm not gaga over Wilco. I just don't get it. Just me. I guess. Thanks, Bri.

charity chic said...

Like kevinpat an album I don't listen to as often as I should.Something I must rectify

Dirk said...

Brian, you should fly around the globe to see him live! He certainly is the best live artist around and the smaller the venue, the better for you: it's not only his performances, it's the stories he tells inbetween the songs, you have to be there to believe it ... fantastic!

George said...

Great track from a great album, Brian.

Brian said...

Hi fellas. E's comment makes me think I should have probably been more clear that I think Bragg is a treasure. I don't know why I stuck with only one album from him for about 15 years, but I began rectifying that situation just about the time Mermaid Avenue came out. Dirk, I have never had the opportunity to see him live. He is far from a regular on the circuit over here. He played some shows in 2013, but the closest he came to my neck of the woods was San Francisco. As you say, I should have probably made the flight. Still hoping the stars align someday so that I get to see him.

The Swede said...

I was a big Uncle Tupelo fan and managed to see them live at one of their few UK shows. After the split I followed both Son Volt and Wilco with interest, though it soon became apparent which of the two was the one to stick with. Tweedy & co are still producing the goods today (their latest LP 'Star Wars' is available as a free download from their website) and Billy seems to get better and more poignant with age too.
'California Stars' is an inspired choice from a terrific joint project.