Billy Bragg, Shawn Colvin Charm New Yorkers In Outdoor Show

Colvin's solo acoustic set gives way to Bragg's playing material, culled from Woody Guthrie archives.

NEW YORK — New Yorkers know a bargain when they see one. And so, as the harbor filled with sailing ships and the Statue of Liberty ferries filled with tourists, some 2,000 people took in a free afternoon concert on Saturday offering Shawn Colvin and Billy Bragg on the lawn of Battery Park.

"It's not every day an Englishman can go anywhere without socks on," Bragg said as he took in the view of Lower Manhattan. He said it reminded him of his gig last month at the Glastonbury Festival in England — "everything but the World Trade Center."

Bragg went easy on the politics but heavy on the stage banter, asking the crowd for the names of sports invented in the States. "Frisbee," one fan cried out, waving his well-worn example in the air. "Hackey sack," said another. "Hackensack? ..." Bragg shot back. "That's in Jersey."

He was looking for someone to mention baseball, as a way of introducing a song from the new album, Mermaid Avenue Volume II, about late Yankee Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. The album marks the second time he and the band Wilco have teamed up to put the lyrics of folk singer Woody Guthrie to music, and on this outing they're singing about everything from Guthrie's daughter Nora to "Joltin' Joe" Dimaggio.

The Man Who Married Marilyn

"Woody Guthrie wrote this song about Joe DiMaggio," Bragg explained, "and when I recorded it, people said to me — Americans — incredulously, 'You know who Joe DiMaggio is?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, you know, I've got all of Simon and Garfunkel's records.' Give me a break. Of course I know who he is!

"A baseball player in Britain doesn't mean a great big deal, quite frankly," he added, acknowledging that the biggest sports stars there play soccer, rugby, cricket or tennis. "But getting married to Marilyn Monroe — that's a big deal. That will get you in the papers."

Frank Delange, from Lelystad, the Netherlands, loved the slow pace Bragg gave to "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key." "He plays it more uptempo on the CD," the 34-year-old fan said, "but this was a nice version as well." He added that before he goes back home he wants to pick up a copy of Volume II.

Also from that album, Bragg showcased "My Flying Saucer" (RealAudio excerpt), which he said Guthrie wrote after reading accounts of a "weather balloon" crash in Roswell, N.M. The song "Against th' Law" was written after Guthrie passed through Winston-Salem, N.C., on one of his many Depression-era road trips. Bragg also played "I Was Born," which, from the date on the lyrics, he said he suspects was written for Guthrie's daughter Nora.

Before the show turned into a Woody Guthrie rally, however, Bragg played "Jeane" (RealAudio excerpt), written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, which he recorded last year on his album Reaching to the Converted.

'Bragg and Bloke'

Then out walked Ian McLagan, who played keyboards with the Small Faces and the Rolling Stones, to back up Bragg for the rest of the show. Calling their act "Bragg and Bloke," they launched into "Everybody Loves You" and "Space Race Is Over," a pair of tunes from Bragg's own 1996 collection, William Bloke.

As a nod to McLagan's long career, Bragg did "Debris," a tune from the Faces' classic album A Nod Is As Good As a Wink ... to a Blind Horse. With only guitar and keyboards behind them, the sad meaning of the song's words shone through: a lament by Ronnie Lane over the rocky relationship he had with his father.

"Every time I've seen him, it's been a free show," added Nora Edison, 34, of New York. "It kind of stands for everything he represents."

Colvin kicked off her set with "Get Out of This House," from her 1996 album, A Few Small Repairs. The singer recalled having lived on the city's Lower East Side for a few of her hungry years, saying one of her apartments was on East Third Street, a block she'd shared with the Hell's Angels. "They made it a pretty safe block — except on the Fourth of July. It was war," she said of the rampant fireworks. "Music and war."

"Wichita Skyline" was inspired, Colvin said, by the guitar riff in Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman." She said she's never been there but loves the images of open space the song conveyed.

She played her radio hit, "Sunny Came Home" (RealAudio excerpt), also from A Few Small Repairs, and several tunes off her Cover Girl album of cover songs, including the slow blues of "Someday," written by Steve Earle. She closed the set with Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and thanked the crowd. After a minute or two of applause, she reappeared for "Nothing on Me," the closer on A Few Small Repairs.

Solo After Sting Fling

Playing solo after opening for Sting on his national tour, Colvin seemed quite relaxed and talkative onstage. She dedicated her cover of "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic" to the pop-rock icon.

"I really didn't know what this would be like," she said, "but it couldn't have been better, except for Sting. ... I've really grown accustomed to his face."

Greg Maniha, 28, also from Manhattan, said the Saturday concert was his seventh Bragg show and that he was thrilled at the chance to see Colvin solo. "Overall, it was great, I mean especially since you didn't have to pay for anything," he said.