jonatha meets woody

jonatha brooke

jonatha brooke

That Woody Guthrie still maintains a fervent international following over 40 years after his death isn’t surprising. He remains as iconic as folk figures come, having galvanized an entire generation of songwriters with music both political and personal.

That Jonatha Brooke, clearly a member of that generation, finds herself championed in concert venues in Europe shouldn’t come as a shock, either. She has been forging pop, folk and, as you will soon discover, jazz sensibilities into critically lauded albums on labels large and small for nearly two decades.

But how about putting all of that together? What if Brooke were singing the words of Woody in Europe? That’s essentially what happened when we caught up with Brooke, who performs tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, by phone last week. She was in Paris – France, not Kentucky – showing off songs from her sublime 2008 album The Works, which sets Brooke’s original music to previously unissued lyrics from the Guthrie archives.

So there is Brooke, opening a brief string of concerts for French songstress Nolween Leroy on the latter’s home turf, singing music co-composed, in essence, by the most revered figure in American folk. How wild is that?

“Well, last night we were in Lille, which is a city about two hours north of Paris,” Brooke said. “And it turns out all of the musicians in Nolween’s band are huge fans of mine. When I get to the bus they all started applauding. I felt like a princess. Then they start playing My Sweet and Bitter Bowl (a tune from The Works featuring lyrics Guthrie penned in 1947). They were saying (as Brooke affects an Inspector Clouseau-like dialect), ‘Oh, we love this one.’ So it was like I was hearing this record again through new ears. I fell in love with it all over again.”

It turns out that the members of Leroy’s band aren’t the only high profile music industry pals Brooke has made over the years. The musicians helping her out on The Works make up an A-list of pop, folk, blues and jazz greats.

Singing a duet and playing dobro on the brightly soulful All You Gotta Do is Touch Me is blues-soul star Keb’ Mo’. Playing discreet slide guitar on the folk meditation New Star is Derek Trucks. In the producer’s chair was Bob Clearmountain, whose credits include The Pretenders, The Who and two previous Brooke albums. And the basic band? Try pop-jazz pianist Joe Sample, champion jazz bassist Christian McBride and world class session drummer Steve Gadd.

OK, here we go again. How does something like this happen? How does an indie project like The Works land such a prestigious guest list?

“Beg? Steal? Borrow? No, luckily I am known and respected in the musical world,” Brooke said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve made enough records over the years that people know me. I mean, I may not sell like Beyonce. But a real network of fans has formed in the musical world. I can make calls to these people and they will actually return them.

“It’s incredibly flattering that Steve Gadd is a fan. And Christian McBride, too. They were like, ‘Sure, if we can work it out, we’ll be there.’ And they’re such incredible players. You put these really complicated charts in front of them and they just fly.”

One person who wasn’t all that familiar with Brooke’s music prior to The Works was Nora Guthrie, daughter of the folk legend and overseer of The Woody Guthrie Foundation. She has enlisted artists before to bring the many volumes of unused Guthrie lyrics and writings to life. Among them is British folk renegade Billy Bragg, who penned “new” Woody Guthrie songs with Wilco for the two-volume Mermaid Avenue project.

Brooke felt she was contacted by Nora Guthrie on the recommendation of artists, friends and DJs in the Philadelphia area, where a massive benefit/tribute performance honoring her father, titled In Woody’s Words, was staged in December 2007.

“Nora called me and (fellow contemporary folk stylists) John Gorka and Chris Smither to write one or two songs with her dad’s lyrics that would premiere at this concert,” Brooke said. “So, originally, it was just going to be a little one-off thing. But I just fell head over heals for what Nora and her dad have done. The progression was me saying, ‘I can do something really different with these lyrics’ and Nora saying, ‘You go, girl. Do it.’

“The only daunting thing for me was making changes. The first day I had to go to Nora and ask, ‘Is it okay for me to delete 10 verses from My Sweet and Bitter Bowl?’ There were like 30 damn verses. There was no way I was going to do a half-hour song.

“But early on, Nora told me, ‘Do what you need to do. This needs to be your sound, your record. Make the music about you. Trust me. Woody has been around a long time. He’ll be fine with this.'”

Jonatha Brooke performs at 9 tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets are $25. Call (859) 259-2754.



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