June 23, 1998 Mermaid Avenue, an album of previously unheard lyrics written by the late American songwriter Woody Guthrie, was released into the world forever changing the landscape of Americana music.
The UK singer/songwriter and activist, Billy Bragg teamed up with the alt-country band Wilco to bring these unheard songs to life. Bragg had been approached by Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie several years before about recording some of the thousand or so unrecorded compositions her father left behind. This was the first attempt at handing of these unfinished Woody songs to a new generation to discover and the results of the project were met with enormous critical acclaim. Mermaid Avenue is one of the most loved Americana albums of all-time inspiring fans and musicians alike. Billy Bragg & Wilco were successful in introducing the genius of Woody Guthrie's writing to a new generation and thus began the tradition of reviving his unwritten songs from the massive Guthrie archive.
To celebrate this momentous album's 20th anniversary, WYEP asked some of the best Pittsburgh roots musicians to share their thoughts about their favorite songs from Mermaid Avenue.
I first heard “California Stars” at the end of a marathon Wilco set at the 9:30 Club in DC (mid 2000s). A fan up front booed when he realized they weren’t going to play his request. Jeff Tweedy scolded him, “are you really booing us? We’ve played 22 songs tonight!” and then launched into “California Stars.” I didn’t know about the song or the Mermaid Avenue project at the time. But even at the end of a long set I knew this was something special.
For me, “California Stars” embodies the spirit of Mermaid Avenue. It’s a true example of what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music. It’s a collaboration across space and time. A sound steeped in tradition but not bound by it, something Woody Guthrie understood well. Music that welcomes immigrants, refugees, trespassers and outlaws — also an indie band from Chicago and an English punk rocker. “California Stars” is all of this, two young lovers looking up at an american sky and dreaming of a better tomorrow. - Chet Vincent
"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"
After only discovering Wilco, Bragg, and Guthrie in my mid-twenties, I was a late in appreciating the slight twang and heavy emotional appeal of their music. I listened to their catalogs in reverse, hitting Mermaid Ave only when I was well into my time with The Red Western. Growing up I basically lived in the “woods” around my house, “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” brings me back to summers of freedom where I had nothing but my own childish ambitions to guide me. The tiny wooded world was a universe for me and my friends and the circle of pines behind my house was our fort. This will always be a song that shows me music’s ability to paint a picture, a tendency that seems to creep its way into my own songwriting, and guides me to seek out music that is sensory, emotional, and honest. - Lauren DeLorenze (former Red Western)
"Walt Whitman's Niece"
Billy Bragg & Wilco recorded “Mermaid Avenue.” But to me, it’s a Woody Guthrie album. Of course, it’s his lyrics. Woody Guthrie always represented to me, the true American Songwriter. The opening cut is “Walt Whitman’s Niece”. Walt Whitman, the true American Poet. Whitman said “The American poets are to enclose old and new, for America is the race of races.” This record encompasses the old and new, and forces the listener to forget time.
This song “Walt Whitman’s Niece” creates no beginning and no end. What it does, is leaves everything up to the audience’s senses. The seaman, the narrator’s buddy, builds the scene. The steps, the building, and the girls. Spending all night with a couple of girls reading poems... or not. It’s the perfect poem. You can smell the sea, see the dirt on the steps, the claustrophobic feel of the long room, hear the girls laugh. There’s beauty, lust, and nowhere. So many unanswered questions. But the moment is quite clear. This is America. (I won’t say what America). - Bill Toms
"Christ for President"
The rambunctious energy of this tune is captivating. Jeff Tweedy’s signature vocal grit rouses enthusiasm over a steady, swampy groove that conjures visions of a campaign trail parade for Jesus Christ himself. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics nimbly adopt the stump-speech jargon we’ve all heard before, except these declarations are sincere. After all, this candidate is a man of the people with a proven track record. The collaboration results in a brilliant song of enduring relevance. Woody Guthrie bests any high-brow intellectual analysis with the plain-spoken truth. Christ is undoubtedly a radical political figure and his portrayal as a modern-day candidate forces us to examine the pandering and posturing that pervades our electoral process. I think Americans are fatigued by the lack of reverence and the flimsy moral courage of our elected officials. So Put the Carpenter in, he’s got my vote. - Jon Bindley (Bindley Hardware Co.)
"I Guess I Planted"
Billy Bragg did these lyrics for “I Guess I Planted” the best possible justice by crafting an infectiously catchy song that culminates in a lively, free-flowing sing-along. As a listener, this invites you to join in the celebration of exactly what he is speaking to- coming together, this time in the context of labor unions, to create something bigger than the parts themselves.
Woody Guthrie’s songs about the labor struggles of his time have always been my favorites of his. My dad was a union shop steward for decades, and we still ride our bikes down to the parade together every Labor Day. I always leave feeling inspired by the courage and the joyfulness of people coming together and realizing their collective power. That spirit is captured so nicely by this song, reminding us above all that “The big ones are made up of the little kind.” - Molly Alphabet
"The Unwelcome Guest"
It's apt that we can compare "the rich man's bright lodges" to Trump Towers today. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyric long ago, but history repeats. Woody, an unwelcome guest in a capitalistic society, a man with "no home" in a world where "the gambling man is rich and the working man is poor," strived to undo injustices. Billy Bragg recognized the prominent point of his own career as a moment of self-realization that he had "joined the tradition." And the tradition remains - an unwelcome guest to sing, to question, to expose, to condemn tyrants in a "playhouse of fortune" who have "stolen their gold" from someone else.
"My guns and my saddle
Will always be filled
By unwelcome travelers...
And they'll take the money
And spread it out equal
Just like the Bible
And the prophets suggest"
It is so befitting that Billy Bragg chose to put Woody's dream to this beautiful tune, this never ending waltz. - Tom Breiding
"Hesitating Beauty" is such a joyful tune, especially when considering the other songs on the album. Tweedy's voice is brilliant. The message of the song definitely illuminates a yearning for stability, which was more prevalent during Woody Guthrie's time, post WWII. As a listener in my early twenties, this song is especially relatable in that sense. Everyone wants the "perfect" life, and marriage is the easy answer. It's interesting that the male point-of-view in this song pinpoints the issue as Nora Lee's "hesitation" rather than her own will to not be married. As a songwriter, it would be fun to tell the tale from the woman's perspective, considering her thoughts and emotions. Either way, the song is cheerful and definitely one of my favorites off of the album. - Angela Autumn
In terms of trying to channel the spirit of Woody, I feel Ingid Bergman is the most representative. It's simple and ephemeral, though speaks volumes about creator and performer. Bragg brings Guthrie's infatuation with film star Ingrid Bergman to life in a mere minute 1:50. So quickly in fact, one may not recognize the mechanisms at work. Both artists are known for their political and protest songs, but also for their creation of topical material. The song highlights events taken from 1950's “Stromboli” staring Bergman, directed by Roberto Rossellini. In 1950 Guthrie was still living in the downstairs apartment at 3520 Mermaid Ave. in Coney Island. This song is indicative of one of the many facets of Woody, namely its coy enshrouded wit and insinuation. His open writing style leaves no apologies for lustful innuendo, and Bragg's cool metered delivery and abrupt ending doesn't show his hand. - Bryan McQuaid
June is always a great month for live music in Pittsburgh. The outdoor concert scene gets into full swing, with free County Park shows at South Park and Hartwood Acres, The Three Rivers Arts Festival is June 1st-10th, and many others in between. We wrap up June with the WYEP Summer Music Festival on Saturday, June 30th at Schenley Plaza.
There are concerts virtually every night this June, with multiple choices on several nights this month.
A few picks from me for the month of June:
See Mavis Staples at the Three Rivers Arts Fest June 1st
Alt-J is always a winner live, at this time it’s outdoors at Stage AE June 12th
Jenny Lewis is at The Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead June 12th
"Sprung from cages on highway ____, chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, and steppin' out over the line..."
Yes, it's highway nine to which Bruce Springsteen memorably referred in his classic "Born to Run." Bruce often uses numbers in his lyrics, from the "Eighth Avenue sailors" and the "five quick shots" from "Lost in the Flood" off of Greetings From Asbury Park to "Man, it's just one and one make three" from his most recent studio album (High Hopes) and the song "Frankie Fell in Love."
We decided to run through many of The Boss' numbers from one to one billion used in Springsteen lyrics throughout his catalog.
Click on the presentation to advance the slides manually (or use the → or ↓ keys). You can also click the play button to have it run automatially.
The startling news came on April 9th that Lindsey Buckingham had been fired as guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. However, the band announced that guitar duties on a fall tour — which is scheduled to hit Pittsburgh on November 1st — would be taken over by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Neil Finn of Crowded House.
It is certainly notable that the newly-announced guitarists have such high profile resumes. The last time Buckingham was out of the band, from 1987 to 1995, he was replaced by Billy Burnette and Rick Vito—both musicians with impressive credits (and, in Burnette’s case, an impressive pedigree; he is the son and nephew, respectively, of rockabilly pioneers Dorsey and Johnny Burnette), but nowhere near as well-known as Campbell and Finn.
The hiring of Campbell and Finn made us here at WYEP think of other instances in which a renowned, established musician was brought in as a touring member of a famous band. Of course, many artists have brought in famous collaborators for appearances at benefits, festivals, or even otherwise run-of-the-mill concerts. At the 1985 Live Aid benefit alone, Thomas Dolby played keyboards for David Bowie, Sting sang with Dire Straits, Pat Metheny played guitar with Santana, the Thompson Twins performed with Madonna, and Keith Richards and Ron Wood backed up Bob Dylan on guitar.
But we didn’t want these one-shot appearances. We wanted genuine touring band only, musicians who performed on a real tour as a member of the group.
We also ruled out musicians who appeared on studio recordings with that band. This eliminated Adrian Belew with both David Bowie and Talking Heads (as Belew played guitar on Bowie’s Lodger album and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light) and Johnny Marr with Modest Mouse (Marr was on the band’s 2007 release We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank).
We thought of seven other instances of Famous Fill-Ins. Here’s what we came up with.
1. The Grateful Dead, with Bruce Hornsby on keyboards (1990-92)
On July 26, 1990, Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose. By that time, Bruce Hornsby had already notched six top 40 hits as a headline performer with his backing band The Range. Hornsby was invited to join the Dead on piano to augment the sound of their new keyboardist Vince Welnick (who could also be considered for this list as he was formerly a member of The Tubes and never made a studio recording with the Dead despite performing with them until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and the group’s subsequent demise). Hornsby ended up performing over 100 concerts with the Grateful Dead, continuing with them through March 24, 1992. After parting ways with the Dead as a touring member, Hornsby resumed his career as a solo artist. Although he never returned to the pop charts, Hornsby has had a solid career as a critically-acclaimed singer, songwriter, and performer.
Watch Hornsby’s entire first show with the Grateful Dead on September 15, 1990 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Hornsby is on piano; Vince Welnick is on synthesizer.
2. The Pogues, with Joe Strummer as frontman (1991-92)
The Pogues merged traditional Irish sounds and stories with a punk rock sensibility, but frontman Shane MacGowan had become erratic due to heavy drinking and drug use. The band fired him in September 1991, and they turned to the producer of their previous album (1990’s Hell’s Ditch) to fill in as their singer: Joe Strummer, formerly of The Clash. Strummer only intended himself as a seat-warmer in the frontman gig until the band figured out their future plans, although some hoped the arrangement would be permanent. In fact, the traveling Lollapalooza festival had The Pogues with Strummer on a short list to book for its second outing during summer of 1992. After Strummer bowed out of the band, The Pogues’ tin whistle player Spider Stacy took over as lead singer. (The band would break up in 1996 and then reunite with MacGowan in 2001.) Joe Strummer would go on to form The Mescaleros in the later 1990s to back him for three albums until his death on December 22, 2002.
Listen to a concert with Strummer fronting The Pogues at the London Forum in December 1991:
3. Neil Young, with Booker T. & The MG's as his backing band (1993)
In the fall of 1992, at a massive tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden, three of the members of the legendary Stax Records house band, Booker T. & The MG’s, were backing many of the musicians paying tribute to the rock icon. Neil Young was among those performing, and at the event, he asked if they would tour with him the following year as his backing band. The tour was a bit of a hodgepodge, with Blind Melon as opening act and, on some dates, Soundgarden. (To be fair, Booker T. Jones and Donald “Duck” Dunn of the band did later appear on Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, but we’ll still include them on this list, as it wasn’t the full band appearing on a record with Neil.)
Watch a full concert with Neil Young backed by Booker T. & The MG’s in July 1993 at the Torhout Festival in Belgium:
4. Squeeze, with Aimee Mann as guitarist/singer (1994)
Following Aimee Mann’s 1993 solo debut album, she performed acoustically while doing a radio interview. Squeeze’s Chris Difford was among the radio audience and contacted Mann by sending a fax to the radio station. Although it took her a few days to respond (when she did, Difford reportedly asked her, “Did they deliver that fax by Pony Express?”), they soon became friends. Eventually, the connection resulted in an invitation for her to join Squeeze as a temporary member of the band for a 20 or so date acoustic tour in 1994. (And, as above with Neil Young and Booker T. & The MG’s, Squeeze’s Difford and Glenn Tilbrook sang background vocals on Mann’s subsequent album, 1995’s I’m With Stupid; however, since it wasn’t the full band, it still fits our criteria here.)
Hear a full concert of Squeeze with Aimee Mann in Chicago’s Grant Park on July 4, 1994:
5. Iron & Wine, with Marketa Irglova and Rosie Thomas as backing vocalists (2011)
When Iron & Wine released the Kiss Each Other Clean album in January 2011, band leader Sam Beam seemingly wanted to make a great impression performing live. He’s “pulling out all the stops to promote the release,” according to Seattle singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas at the time. Beam enlisted Thomas and Marketa Irglova (the Oscar-winning songwriter of The Swell Season and Once movie fame) as backup singers for a tour supporting the new album. They made a lot of promotional stops, like on the TBS talk show Conan and at a number of radio stations (including a visit to WYEP!), and performed a series of regular concerts through the spring. On some dates, one of the backing singers wasn’t available—sometimes subbed by Beam’s sister Sarah Simpson or, at the Bonnaroo festival on June 12, 2011, by Minneapolis vocalist Aida Shahghasemi.
6. The Decemberists, with Sara Watkins on fiddle, guitar, percussion, and vocals (2011)
During the same period that Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean was released (January 2011), the Portland, Oregon group The Decemberists debuted their sixth album The King Is Dead. When they kicked off “The Popes of Pendarvia World Tour” after the album release on January 24th at New York’s Beacon Theater, the band had a temporary member in tow: Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins. Watkins would sit in with the group during the entire tour, and she later commented about her experience playing with The Decemberists, “It was refreshing; it was a great way to wipe my slate clean and tap into who I was.”
7. The Black Crowes, with Jackie Greene as guitarist and singer (2013)
Jackie Greene started his career as a talented if Dylanesque singer-songwriter from central California, but he’s undergone a few notable metamorphoses over the years. In the mid- to late-aughts, Greene began playing guitar with Phil Lesh & Friends. In 2012, he continued his Dead connection by forming a short-lived trio with Bob Weir and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. Meanwhile, Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, who had been serving as a guitar player for the Black Crowes, had returned to his main band. So, when the Crowes decided to return to the road in 2013, Robinson tapped Greene to step into the fold. Greene toured with the Crowes for the better part of a year (including a summer run with Tedeschi Trucks Band that stopped at Stage AE here in Pittsburgh). Despite the fact that the Black Crowes announced the band’s dissolution in early 2015, Greene remains listed as a band member on the official Black Crowes website like an insect frozen in amber. Greene, however, has been on the move since his stint as a touring member of the Crowes with solo recordings as well as forming the band Trigger Hippy with other ex-Crowes and Joan Osborne.
Listen to an entire concert by The Black Crowes with Jackie Greene on guitar from their last concert (December 14, 2013, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco):
Do you knnow of other instances where an artist used a Famous Fill-In in their touring band? Let us know via Facebook or Twitter!
It's going to be a banner summer concert-wise in Pittsburgh! As I watched over the past few months, daily reminders and additions to the spring and summer concerts started rolling in. I figured that I'd start my own list to keep track and not get lost from week to week. There're many nights throughout the summer where there are several choices on shows: local, big and small happening on the same night. This list is just for the month of MAY.
Throughout this summer I'll be doing preview of the coming month's concerts. I suggest subscribing to the Spotify playlist below and using the WYEP concert calendar to keep up to date, or see the list below.
Carnegie Lecture Hall
The Wonder Years
Carnegie Lecture Hall
Reverand Peyton's Big Damn Band
Rachel Kilgour, Chris Hannigan
First Unitarian Church Of Pittsburgh
Bill Toms and Hard Rain
Eli Paperboy Reed, High & Mighty Brass Band
Lake Street Dive
Funhouse at Mr. Smalls
Carver Commodore, Bad Custer, Fortune Teller
Funhouse at Mr. Smalls
Cycles at Cattivo
Andre Costello and the Cool Minors
The Stage At Karma
Jukebox The Ghost
West End Blend
The Crystal Method
The Stage At Karma
Matthew Logan Vasquez
Portugal. The Man
Billy Price Band, Reverand Billy Wirts
HammerFall, Flotsam and Jetsam
Here are a few suggestions for the month, from me, in case you need some ideas.
Alvvays on May 1st, Toronto indie-dream pop at it's finest.
Bruce Cockburn on May 2nd
David Byrne on May13th
Fleet Foxes on May 17th
Lissie on May 20th
...And it's a toss up for me on May 22nd Portugal. the Man at Stage AE or Rhiannon Giddens at The Byham. Round out the month with the always entertaining Decemberists on May 31st. Enjoy the playlist and hope to see you at many concerts this month!
Who is That Well Regarded Artist You Simply Cannot Stand?
You know what we mean, it's the artist or band that EVERYONE seems to love, but you just can't get on board with them. You've tried over and over to understand or reason with others, but it just never meshes. We all have those artists. You just don't like them.... Well.... except... there's that ONE song... that... you kinda... well, you kinda like that one song.
Right now, WYEP is in the nominating phase to find out the top "Well Regarded Artist You Simply Cannot Stand" among our listeners. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions and this is definitely going to spark some debate. We asked WYEP's hosts to chime in on who they cannot stand... well, except for that one song.
Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host) Artist I Cannot Stand: John Mayer The 1 Song I like by them: "Belief"
If you ask me to listen to an entire John Mayer album I’ll do it (if I like you enough), but be warned, I’m going to expect something in return and it’s going to be expensive.
Yes, I know he’s a brilliant guitarist, I’ve heard his live album with his trio. The Dead invited him to play with them because no other can capture the spirit of Jerry Garcia’s guitar better than he. His voice is pretty enough to woo susceptible female fans, but I’m not one of them. Mayer’s music is way too schlocky for my taste. His saccharine melodies and sopolistic lyrics play like teeth on a blackboard to my ear. His overt sexism, pompous self-regard, and adolescent sense of humor doesn’t help matters.
Despite this there was a momentary glimmer of hope from Mr. Mayer when in 2006 he released Continuum. Several songs on the album suggested that Narcissus had turned away from the gazing pool long enough to recognize a troubled world. One song in particular caught my attention and I attest to its merit. It’s called “Belief.” Its measured tempo and hypnotic melody draw the listener in then hits them with the concept of the shared fragility of human existence.
I don’t doubt in Mr. Mayer’s talent or intellect. I just hope he comes to recognizes that his brain is his most precious organ, and it is the one he should be sharing with the world.
Joey Spehar (Morning Mix Host) Artist I Cannot Stand: U2 The 1 Song I like by them: "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
U2 are a great band. They’re an important band. They’re popular for a reason. No, they’re popular and important and great for many reasons.
However, I just can’t stand listening to them. Maybe I find their music overly ambitious and a bit too epic in scale. Maybe I’m annoyed by those stupid “sunglasses” and hats that Bono and The Edge are always wearing, respectively. Maybe I’m holding a grudge against the guy who overrode all of my songs on the jukebox with his own personal U2 greatest hits that one time 13 years ago.
The real reason I don’t like U2 is probably because I was born too late to appreciate them. By the time teenage me became aware of this musical institution, they felt like caricatures of themselves. They were larger than life when I was looking for something a bit more intimate.
However, if I even hear so much as the first measure of drums on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I’m almost willing to let my grudge go. Those drums! That understated riff! Hell, even Bono’s little vocal warmups before the verse starts! It almost makes me want to go all in and try to change the world.
Kyle Smith (Midday Host & Music Director) Artist I Cannot Stand: John Mayer The 1 song I Like By John Mayer: “In the Blood”
John Mayer released his debut album in 2001 and dropped by the station for a Live & Direct Session before his first show in Pittsburgh at Club Café. Room For Squares had just come out, the interview and session were top-notch. John seemed earnest, musically proficient at the age of 23, and quite humble. Room For Squares is an excellent debut, and a finely tuned pop gem. He returned about a year later, after the pop world had discovered his music, and I heard a local interview with John on one of the big hit Top40 stations. His persona during the on-air spot changed completely to a sophomoric jerk that would jump into any room and morph into what was required. It was a huge turn-off along with his subsequent melt-downs in two, rather controversial magazine interviews. He ended up retreating from interviews and public life, had vocal cord surgery, and then focused more on other projects that highlighted his stellar guitar playing and songwriting. After touring with The Dead & Company he returned with the album in 2017, The Search For Everything, and won me back over as a fan with the song “In The Blood.”
Cindy Howes (Evening Mix Host) Artist I Cannot Stand: Phil Collins The 1 Song I like by them: "Follow You Follow Me" (which is actually by Genesis)
Even though I know his music is pleasant enough, I don’t like Phil Collins. I think he’s corny and not as profound as others might find him. Also, I’m more into the depth, sincerity and weirdness that his former Genesis bandmate, Peter Gabriel’s solo material presents. The person who pointed all this out to me was Aimee Mann. Mann lost an Oscar for her song “Save Me” to “Phil Collins and his cartoon monkey love song” (according to Aimee). She tends to dedicate her losing song in jest to Collins, but I took her point very seriously. That being said, the one Phil Collins song I am okay with is Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me,” which was actually written by Mike Rutherford (or so he says) on their 1978 album "And Then There Were Three." It’s a sweet and simple love song soaked in soft rock production that just steals my heart. Phil takes the lead vocal on the song, but the show is stolen by that sweet Moog run.
Brian Siewiorek (Production Director) Artist I Cannot Stand: Wings The 1 Song I like by them: "Live and Let Die”
Not to knock Sir Paul McCartney, especially his work with The Beatles and some of his solo work, but I have never been able to get into his Wings-era output. (Hell, Sir Paul isn’t even my favorite Beatle anyway.) The one exception from his decade-long stint with Wings is the song, “Live and Let Die”. Written for the 1973 James Bond film of the same name, there is something so gleefully over-the-top about it, that makes it glorious pop gold. The piano, the strings, the brass, all produced by McCartney’s old pal, Sir George Martin (Beatles producer extraordinaire). There is just so much going on, that you can almost hear something new on each listen. It’s a pretty fun rollercoaster of a song with it’s emotional peaks and serene, yet brief lows. But let’s not talk about that Guns N’ Roses cover, because that was dreadful.
Mike Sauter (Director of Content and Programming) Artist I Cannot Stand: Kanye West The 1 Song I like by them: "Diamonds From Sierra Leone"
It's pretty indisputable that Kanye West is a generally well-regarded artist; not only is his fan base huge, he has won more Grammys than any artist so far in the 21st Century, and he had three albums listed in Rolling Stones' 2012 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (same as The Beach Boys, The Clash, and George Clinton). And yet, I have never really been able to get into his music.
However, there is one of Kanye's songs I will listen to on repeat: his 2005 single "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." Built around a sample of Shirley Bassey's classic James Bond theme "Diamonds Are Forever," the music has a memorable sound and insistent groove. When Kanye reaches up in successively higher registers with his "forever-ever" chorus, something happens in the feel of the song that takes it to a new emotional level.
The song's original verses were mostly a spray of braggadocio, but Kanye remixed the song with fresh lyrics that acknowledge the dirty legacy of conflict diamonds and how innocent people can be harmed by flashy bling worn by blithely unaware Americans (most poignantly in the rhyme "I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless/Till I seen a picture of a shorty armless").
I'll admit, though, that I first heard the song with the original lyrics, and my enthusiasm for it was the same. It's not the enlightened message of the remix that makes me enjoy the song (although the remix's lyrics are much, MUCH better). It's the song's sound and vibe that keeps me captivated.