’60s Folk Singer Tours Behind New Album
MADISON, Wis. — If Arlo Guthrie had a resume, we could expect to see words like “musician,” “songwriter” and “actor” among the occupations he’s dabbled in. Most likely, there will be one description that’s missing from the list: teacher.
The eldest son of the legendary folk titan Woody, Guthrie is one of the few holdovers from the ’60s folk music revival and remains its greatest champion and most dedicated ambassador. The mantle that Bob Dylan tossed off in 1965, Guthrie gratefully picked up, dusted off and hoisted onto his undersized shoulders. In the years since, Dylan has at times sought to reclaim his former position while Guthrie has creatively and musically grown into the role. If Guthrie has occasionally been criticized in some quarters for being a Dylan clone, it’s more than likely because they share the same musical fountainhead. For Guthrie, however, this music is a family tradition passed on.
Passing the music along was the point of Guthrie’s concert on Thursday night at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison. While nominally promoting a new record released this past summer, the show’s principal aim was to reaffirm the audience’s faith in the music and a philosophy that flowered from ’60s hippie culture. His performance — whether through the music or amusing anecdotes — sought to encourage, remind and then instill passion in his contemporaries who know fewer opportunities to change the world are lining up ahead of them than behind. At the same time, Guthrie strove to instruct his younger fans on the ways and methods of folk music, ensuring the torch is passed to the next generation.
Sitting on a stool and without a backing group, Guthrie fit in with the other aging Baby Boomers in the audience. The flower children of 40 years ago are the grandparents and great-grandparents of today. Many looked like an NPR-loving army of people with expanding waistlines and contracting hairlines. Guthrie dressed like a ’70s cowboy in a white shirt with subtle pattern, leather vest and jeans. Like many in the crowd, his wavy mane of long hair was a Gandalf white instead of a middle-aged gray. Even his eyeglasses looked a bit thicker than before.
“The older I get, the smarter I look to some people,” he joked.
But besides the veterans, Guthrie devoted considerable attention to the pockets of young hippies and folk-music bon vivants who were curious to glimpse what they missed out on. While the ’60s hootenannies have been forever banished by the formal concert settings preferred by a majority of ’70s singer-songwriters, Guthrie’s shows are the last remnant that at least attempts to harken back to those free-form-loving days. Guthrie has fashioned a performance style into a routine that’s part musical journey, part storytelling session and part stand-up comedy act. He spent as much time onstage pretending to be acoustic guitar-slinging “Cheech & Chong” as he did a folk music master. His instructions to his disciples young and old were wrapped in humor or fanciful guitar plucking and all strove to either inspire memories or marvel the new converts.
Instead of the sunny-eyed, utopianism one might expect to hear from an old hippie, Guthrie seemed surlier, kind of crotchety and a bit curmudgeonlier than you might anticipate. Mark Twain’s public persona is an obvious inspiration. New technologies, homeland security and the powers that be continue to be a source of confusion and frustration for him, but instead of being a spokesman ready to call on his followers to march toward the Capitol, he’s more willing to utter a cynic’s quip.
“This world sucks,” Guthrie said with a chuckle. “It’s hard to have fun in a world like this.”
His ire — even when delivered tongue in cheek — could be biting.
“There are a lot of strange people here tonight. The peace and love types come out of the woodwork for this,” he said. “I know. I was one of them.”
But like Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, Guthrie’s faux cynicism masks a vibrant steak of idealism that lies underneath or is loosely wrapped in code. Like Dylan, Guthrie learned long ago that a lording over people won’t galvanize support as much as humor, personal anecdotes or above all, music can. Guthrie’s colorful stories are the fuel for his songs as well as his concert talk. It’s entirely probable that he and Tom Waits subscribe to the same clipping service, which provides them countless arcane news stories. But no matter how screwball the tale, each carefully constructed mini-parable contains a point that is underscored. It either delivers a wink-wink message to the audience or transitions the audience from one song to the other. At one point, he told an amusing, roundabout story of the world-altering power that one person’s actions can have.
“The whole world could hinge on you, some anonymous dude,” he said, getting to his point. Guthrie then warned what that one person thought after he saw the reaction to his choice: “I should have given my name.”
In Guthrie’s most famous song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” you can get anything you want, and the same holds true — mostly — at his concerts. He played his four best-loved tracks, including the aforementioned “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” to ecstatic cheers from the polite crowd.
Songs like “Darkest Hour,” “The Motorcycle Song” and “City Of New Orleans” were adjusted slightly, but remained true to their recorded versions. Guthrie’s singing is deeper than when he was young, but his vocal powers — his ability to add new inflections and truly sell the song — haven’t diminished. He complained of some hoarseness onstage although it added an extra texture to the familiar melodies. There was nothing wrong with his guitar and piano playing. However, it was on the guitar that he demonstrated some surprising dexterity, playing elegant chords and wow-ing many with his fast-moving fingering.
Prettiness fell by the wayside when he tore into “Coming Into Los Angeles,” singing the words high and playing the guitar hard and fast exactly like he had performed it on the Woodstock festival’s stage in 1969. It was by the second verse that his vocal register dropped to grittier tones as hints of hoarseness crept into his singing. This accident succeeded in taking this relic of another era and catapulting it into the modern day. Guthrie wasn’t playing an old chestnut. He was singing a brand new song remade for this moment.
In between hits and his own favorites, Guthrie continually drifted back to discussing his songwriting process. He was being entertaining, but also discreetly teaching tomorrow’s folk heroes seated at his feet.
“Songwriting is like fishing,” he instructed the crowd. “Just don’t be downstream from Bob Dylan.”
Later, he offered a mini-course in music history when he played several folk music standards. He perfectly strummed and plucked the spooky, circular guitar patterns of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” the melody of which was expropriated by Dylan for his masterful “Blind Willie McTell.” Little Walter’s “Key To The Highway” was retrofitted from rough and tumble world of the Chicago South Side to a softer, more relaxed Pacific blues.
Guthrie also offered glimpses of his broader musicality. He played a mournful instrumental that he said was inspired by Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. Later, he climbed behind an electric piano to play a ragtime piece, which had musical motifs recalling “Alice’s Restaurant.” He delved deeper into his back catalogue too, pulling out the oddly appropriate “When A Soldier Makes It Home.” The song, which bares certain similarities to Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” was written from the perspective of soldiers when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. Guthrie wrung new meaning out of his words and his harmonica playing was delicate and powerful.
Guthrie literally brought the show back home when he played his father’s most famous composition, “This Land Is Your Land” as a closer. More of a talking blues than a proper song, Guthrie sang only three verses, interspersing it with still more little stories and asides. The audience joined in when he brought the song back to the chorus and its end was greeting with a standing ovation.
Called back for an encore, Guthrie opted to conclude the evening by again striking right for the traditionalists’ hearts. First, he played “My Peace,” a song which his father penned lyrics for, but whose music Arlo wrote many years later. (He said it is one of 3,500 songs that Woody wrote in his final years, but no music exists. Some of these manuscripts were used by Billy Bragg and Wilco for the widely acclaimed “Mermaid Avenue” albums.) Secondly, he sought to rouse the audience from being mere spectators into participants by teaching them the words and encouraging them to sing along. As was the case with “This Land Is Your Land,” the sound of several hundred people singing in unison outlined the performance’s parallels to a church service.
Guthrie playfully nudged the stragglers too shy to chime in on the lilting melody.
“We know you’re not earning your living doing this,” he said.
Once again, Guthrie was functioning as the teacher, seeking to awakening his students — whether through praise, through charm and through sugar-coated sarcasm to accept responsibilities for the music they love and pick up the mantle.
Arlo Gurthrie’s Remaining Tour Dates:
- Friday, Oct. 19, Elgin, Ill.
- Saturday, Oct. 20, Rockford, Ill.
- Tuesday, Oct. 23 and Wednesday, Oct. 24, Ann Arbor, Mich.
- Friday, Oct. 26, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
- Saturday, Oct. 27, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Sunday, Oct. 28, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
- Friday, Nov. 2, Lexington, Ken.
- Wednesday, Nov. 7 and Thursday, Nov. 8, Alexandria, Va.
- Saturday, Nov. 10, Glenside, Penn.
- Monday, Nov. 12, Harrisburg, Penn.
- Tuesday, Nov. 13, Ithaca, N.Y.
- Thursday, Nov. 15, Fitchburg, Mass.
- Friday, Nov. 16, Pittsfield, Mass.
- Saturday, Nov. 17, Springfield, Mass.
- Sunday, Nov. 18, Torrington, Conn.
- Saturday, Nov. 24, New York, New York
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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.