For a Brooklyn-born hippie best known for a cleverly nonsensical anti-war ballad disguised by 'Aw, shucks' simple-mindedness and a harmless, looping guitar line, Arlo Guthrie is an amazingly complex performer.
The spare stage Sunday night held Arlo, his son Abe on keyboards, a friend switching between pedal steel and mandolin and Arlo's daughter Sarah Lee and son-in-law Johnny, a pair of guitarists and wonderful harmonizing singers.
The wild, white hair of a 59-year-old - Arlo's most dominating physical attribute - is strange considering I've only seen the performer in the oddly dark Alice's Restaurant movie and record covers, where there's a definite boyishness mixed in with the hippie.
I do have a bootleg recording of Arlo doing a short set at a folk festival last summer, so I knew pretty well what to expect from the sound.
The show opened with plenty of Woody songs, including “Oklahoma Hills” and “Talking Dust Bowl Blues.” Arlo's young granddaughter ran out to join her mother in singing the chorus to "Union Maid." And the performance of "1913 Massacre" was beautiful and sad in ways I don't think Woody ever quite wrapped his head around.
Sarah Lee and Johnny sang a couple of their own tunes, which fit right into the Guthrie canon, especially sung in such a delicate harmony. The couple even brought out their own version of "Another Man's Done Gone," after giving some great props to Wilco and Billy Bragg for their Mermaid Avenue records.
An old New Orleans tune, "St. James Infirmary," and a new Arlo composition probably called "In Times Like These" touched on Arlo's experience playing a series of charity shows after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
After intermission (intermission?! oh yeah, it's a sit-down folk show with an audience median age of at least 60), Arlo came out with a romping Irish tune to warm up.
Then he hit into "Alice's Restaurant Massacre," the nearly 20-minute career defining tune I thought he'd retired. Still funny and still poignant, the song had me shouting along with the final chorus ("If you want to end war, you have to sing loud") and couldn't have been more uplifting.
Arlo the storyteller took up a lot of the second set, primarily with this long rambling set of loosely connected stories about Australia and flying that Josh and I were pretty sure was a set-up for "Coming into Los Angeles." And eventually it was, after an ever-more-excited Arlo told of flying back into the country once and seeing a man 1,000 miles away smelling his plane, zeroing in on new present - exactly the type of illicit material you'd expect he'd try to smuggle into the States. So Arlo ate it, and when the plane landed he was still flyin' so high that he saw the passengers one by one get sucked down the time tunnel, until he himself was escorted down the time tunnel, where at long last he came face to face with the man who'd been sniffing him for the past 1,000 miles. "Heh, Heh, Heh, You ate it," said the inspector's grin, to which Arlo smiled back "Yep." A circuitous route, to be sure, but hilarious all along the way and "Coming into Los Angeles" indeed followed, a smashing quick and loud version considering there were no drums or amps.
After playing a bit of newly unearthed Woody audio, Arlo sang a Woody tune he'd put music too. Then came the sing-along "This Land is Your Land" to close the show and an encore that started with "City of New Orleans."
All in all it was an amazing show, despite not even hearing my two favorite Arlo tunes - "Motorcycle Song" (which I'm not sure he plays any more) and "Darkest Hour" (which is just about my favorite song of all time, for anybody, and one I know he still plays 'cause it's on that bootleg I have from last summer).
Afterwards, Josh and I discussed the show over a couple of beers, talking about how Arlo bridged his father and the hippies, how the peace and love movement is not only fueled by its songs, but takes comfort in them and drives more new tunes. I'd say that by virtue of the fact that he had Woody as a father and teacher, plus strong friendships from his youth with Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston, Arlo is probably the only great post-Dylan songwriter never influenced by Dylan.
We talked about how the War experiences of both Woody (Merchant Marines) and Johnny Cash (Air Force) only strengthened their individualism. I wouldn't call the experience foundational for either man's character - there were just too many experiences earlier for that - but in a way both men became more isolated by their service, pushed more into the art of song, drawing on that inner artistic strength to push them through the experience (though to my recollection neither faced anything in the way of direct combat, that doesn't mean the service was a comfortable time) and returning more a musician and song-writer than before. Cash was obviously a lot younger during his time in the service than Woody was, but Woody was even more prolific writing songs later in life, though most are just words on paper these days, with thousands of melodies dying inside his head as he succumbed to Huntington's disease.