Various Artists

Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the '60s

Astor Place Recordings

If you were to walk down Bleecker Street between Sixth Avenue and University Place in New York City, it might be hard to imagine that that stretch of blocks, along with nearby MacDougal Street, were once the epicenter of a profound musical revolution. Sure, some of the clubs and coffee houses remain, but there are really only the faintest echoes of what was, during the 1960s, perhaps the most musically bustling neighborhood in America. And even though the Greenwich Village area is mostly identified with the folk movement that launched Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and many others to not only stardom but cultural import, at its height the Village also nurtured such rock icons as Jimi Hendrix and The Mothers of Invention, which both did time playing local nightspots. But in the end, it's folk music and its offspring folk-rock that the Village represents in the pages of musical history, though in some ways that time and its sensibility have seemed all but lost. That is, until the recent release of Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the '60s, a collection of 16 folk-era standards performed by 18 artists.

Yeah, I know. There are few musical concepts more tired and awkward than the mercilessly overdone multi-artist tribute album. And if there's a genre that's truly a dead horse in this alienated age, it's the poetic and humanistic music of the 1960s folk movement. (Just spend some time at the Kerrville Folk Festival to judge how today's "new folk" movement lacks the cultural currency as well as the energy and vision that once exemplified contemporary folk music.) But in what is a stirring renewal rather than revival, Bleecker Street gets it all incredibly right. It's a tribute that captures the past yet resides comfortably in the present, and actually coheres as a whole work rather than as a disparate collection of artistic interpretations. It's as if the brick buildings and brownstones of the Village had been rehabilitated to their former charms. This is the music of the folkie '60s as it should be heard in the 1990s and beyond.

The song selection here is impeccable, from the allegorical allusions of Dylan's "My Back Pages" to the properly obvious choices by the likes of folk vets Tom Rush ("No Regrets"), Phil Ochs ("I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"), Tom Paxton ("The Last Thing on My Mind") and Eric Andersen ("Thirsty Boots") to the less widely known Buzzy Linhart's "The Love's Still Growing," which is still a Village staple. The artist lineup includes such carefully chosen but utterly appropriate singers as Loudon Wainwright III and Iris DeMent (who do a touching duet on Richard and Mimi Farina's "Pack Up Your Sorrows) as well as neo-folkies John Gorka, Patty Larkin and Suzzy and Maggie Roche, and such inspired choices as Chrissie Hynde (who reveals new facets on Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory"), Marshall Crenshaw (with a post-folk-rock take on "My Back Pages"), Jules Shear (with a sweetly faithful reading of John Sebastian's "Darling Be Home Soon") and John Cale with Suzanne Vega (on Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne"). The arrangements are instrumentally sparse but musically rich. From Jonatha Brooke's opening reweaving of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bleecker Street" to Irish folk-rocker Paul Brady's lovely and stirring closer of the Youngbloods hit "Get Together" (followed by an instrumental coda of "Turn, Turn, Turn"), each track finds these wonderful songs beautifully reborn.

The music within is matched by the packaging, especially the 360-degree photo on the fold-out cover of this CD's cardboard Digipak that depicts the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal, and the thoughtful and informed liner notes by critic Anthony DeCurtis. In every way, this set exemplifies DeCurtis's description of the long-gone era's music as "a style that borrowed the graceful melodic simplicity of folk music, along with the romantic notion that one person speaking from his heart could speak to the hearts of many." If you wonder what the folk fuss of the '60s was all about, or remember that era fondly and wonder how its consciousness and songs translate today, Bleecker Street is figuratively able to bow to the past while standing securely in the present, a nifty trick for any piece of art.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Rob Patterson