Monday, December 07, 2009
A week ago Saturday night, I went out to hear some music. I wondered at the time if Kirby Olson, for example, would have preferred that I go hear Arlo Guthrie, one of America’s great folk troubadors, sing the songs of his fabled father, old commie icon Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, or if he’d prefer I go hear, say, some Ron Paul Republican. That’s a trick question, of course, since at this moment in history Arlo Guthrie is a Ron Paul Republican, even as he sings “Deportee” and “This Land is Your Land.” This was Arlo’s 40th holiday season concert at Carnegie Hall, a series begun I believe when he was accompanying Pete Seeger & very much the image of The Kid, the character he projected iconically in the song & subsequent film Alice’s Restaurant. I used to see Guthrie at folk festivals tho the last time I’d heard him live was at a HARP concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, HARP being the quartet briefly composed of Holly Near, Arlo, Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers) & Seeger. That was 1985 & he still seemed very much The Kid then, at least alongside Pete (born 1919, the same year as Robert Duncan) & Ronnie (one month younger than my mother). In 1985, he would have been 38, not really a kid at all.
But it didn’t seem like it had been 24 years since I’d last seen him, perhaps because WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania station, plays Alice’s Restaurant every Thanksgiving right around noon & it’s been a staple of that holiday for us now for the past 14 years. It doesn’t take much more than that one song – all 18 minutes of it – one time each year not only to make Guthrie feel present, but likewise to freeze him in time, The Kid.
Now, however, he’s very much the patriarch, a very different figure from his own father, and the concert was in fact billed as The Guthrie Family Rides Again. There were, by my count, 14 different people on stage at different moments, not counting the sound tech, all but two of them blood relatives, and a couple not much more than two-years-old.
Functionally there were two or three centers on stage, of which Arlo was only one. Almost as strong in their presence were Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion (her singing partner & husband), who opened the show with a short set of their own. Sarah Lee has something unique to the Guthrie family, a voice to die for, and I can imagine a scenario of returning here in another few decades to hear her headline a show that contains an even larger gaggle of Arlo’s kids, grandkids and (by then) great grandkids. It will look a little like the old Coke “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial. But it might be pretty terrific.
The other real power center Saturday night belonged to Cathy Guthrie, who runs the family Rising Son Records label with her sister Annie. Cathy did just one tune from her Folk Uke CD (this being a duet she plays in with Willie Nelson’s daughter, Amy), but hers was the song – “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow” – I’ve been singing all week.
Those at least were the most visible focal points, tho I noted several times over the evening that for all of the guitars on stage, an awful lot of the music depended for its coherence on Abe Guthrie’s keyboards & that Johnny Irion, in addition to being Sarah Lee’s partner, is himself a good singer & a helluva guitarist.
In addition to songs by Woody & Arlo, Sarah Lee & Johnny, the Folk Uke tune, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the evening even included one holiday tune co-written by Woody with his mother-in-law (Arlo’s grandmother), Jewish poet Aliza Greenblatt. In one sense, Arlo has stepped into the space left by Pete Seeger as he’s aged & mostly stopped performing, continuing the great American folk songbook – and this very casual hootenanny-style sing-along – everyone in a mostly full Carnegie Hall singing Shit in unison & on key – seems like a very natural extension of a phenomenon that’s hard to come by these days even at folk festivals.
Plus the work of Arlo’s sister Nora is bearing fruit. Nora has taken over managing Woody’s archives with the hundreds if not thousands of song lyrics just tucked in there waiting to be given some music & set free in the world. The Klezmatics, Wilco, Billy Bragg & Janis Ian are just some of the folks who’ve been entrusted to bring music to Woody’s lyrics and Arlo & family appear to be sampling them all.
Was it the best folk concert I’ve been to in recent years? Hardly. And I could imagine a concert just with Arlo’s kids that would really cook. Looking around Carnegie Hall, as staid a room as there is for music (albeit with crystalline acoustics), I realized that the majority of the audience there may have been my age, but not the vast majority. There were an awful lot of 30-somethings, which suggests that this music may just well survive its embodiment as a soundtrack of the ‘60s. And it wasn’t that this year. There was no singing of “Alice’s Restaurant,” with Arlo giving voice to Officer Obie calling him “Kid.” Just one story about Woodstock & nobody would have known that it was Arlo’s 40th year at Carnegie Hall if Sarah Lee hadn’t stopped everything toward the end to note it “since it seems obvious you’re not going to bring it up.” Any other performer would have used that occasion to set up a week’s worth of interviews in The Times & god knows where else so that the place would have been more than just mostly full. But that wouldn’t have been Arlo Guthrie, which is just what this great large gaggle of song turns out to be.