Jonatha Brooke at the Birchmere
Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at 10:54AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 4, 2008


f there's some kind of fantasy lottery for folk singers, first prize would have to be the chance to co-write a song with Woody Guthrie. That's what happened to the gifted singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, who was invited this year to go through the archives of the iconic American folk singer (who died in 1967) and write songs based on his never-before-seen lyrics.

Brooke took the opportunity and ran with it, as she showed in a revelatory set at the Birchmere on Sunday night. Though she treated fans to some of her older gems ("Better After All," "Red Dress," "Ten Cent Wings"), the real focus was on the Guthrie-based songs from her new album "The Works" -- and it's some of her best work yet. Guthrie, it turns out, left some of his most intimate ideas behind on scraps of paper, and Brooke has turned them into smoldering love songs ("All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me"), explosive mixes of anger and regret ("My Sweet and Bitter Bowl") and even what she calls "totally a chick song," the tender "My Flowers Grow Green."

Brooke's singing isn't for everybody -- her range is limited, and her adenoidal twang grates after a while -- but her writing skills are acute, and there's a sly, seditious edge to her music that can be addictive. Guthrie's long-lost lyrics could hardly have found a better interpreter.

Opening for Brooke was the hyper-verbal Glen Phillips, formerly (and still occasionally) with Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips is recovering from an accident to his left arm that's hampered his guitar-playing, but an hour-long set of funny, biting material proved that his brain is still furiously intact. Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins -- there to do the heavy lifting, guitar-wise -- was an added bonus.

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