It seemed only fitting that last night's concert by Arlo Guthrie in Kingston Ontario was held in a church. Aside from the fact that the current tour is a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the writing of the song "Alice's Restaurant" which features a church in a significant supporting role, ("Alice didn't live in the restaurant, she lives in the church near by") was the feeling of unity of purpose amongst the audience that one would normally associate with a congregation.
We had all come to see a man perform who has for the past forty plus years quietly sung songs that have expressed the concerns of socially conscious people for nearly the past hundred years. It's not just Arlo Guthrie's music that one hears during his concerts; one also hears the songs of the generations that preceded him that he learned at the knee of his father Woody and his contemporaries.
Attending an Arlo Guthrie concert is about more than listening to somebody sing songs; it's about becoming part of the process of keeping American folk culture alive. It's one thing for places like the Smithsonian Institute to create records of the music that has been sung by the people of that country, and another all together to have them performed by a flesh and blood performer.
It takes a special person to be able to get up on stage and perform a song that's over sixty years old and make the audience feel like it's never been performed before. Not only does it require a deep and abiding love for what you are doing, but it also necessitates the ability to involve your audience as more then mere observers to your passion.
With some performers you know that no matter what they do, they are always going to be on the other side of an invisible wall. When you go to an Arlo Guthrie concert not only does the wall come down, it never existed in the first place. If you can imagine somebody's living room seating a few hundred people, than you can understand how his concerts feel like you've just stopped off at a friend's house for a few hours and he's offered to play you some tunes. The conversation may be a little one sided, although you're free to chime in whenever you want, that doesn't stop it from being fun and friendly.
But knowing all this and experiencing it are two separate things. The only other time I've seen Arlo Guthrie in concert was in the summer of 1981 when he and Pete Seeger were doing one of their tours together. It was at an outdoor venue at Ontario Place in Toronto Canada, and the atmosphere wasn't that conducive to intimacy. So it wasn't until last night that I was truly able to understand the appeal Arlo Guthrie holds as a performer.
From the moment he and his band walked on stage, until he finished signing autographs and posing for pictures with people after the show almost three hours latter, he made everybody feel right at home and his special guest. It felt like he was constantly aware of each and everyone of us in the audience and that he knew without us this evening wouldn't have been possible, so we were as important as he was to the proceedings.
Half the fun of an Arlo Guthrie concert is the stories that he tells as introductions to the songs. Some of them are funny and some of them are serious, but they all increase our connection to both the man and the song.
He tells us of being at his parent's home in 1961 and this funny looking guy shows up at the door looking for his dad. Well Woody was in the hospital by then, he spent most of the last ten year of his life hospitalized with Huntington's disease, so Arlo invited him in and they hung out for a bit and played harmonica together before a young Bob Dylan went off to visit Woody.
He continued on to say that Bob visited his dad quite a bit for a while, and then four years latter: "We starting hearing these great songs we'd never heard the likes of before" pause "Maybe I should have visited my dad more often in the hospital" Then he and his band launched into "Mr. Tambourine Man".
It's been a long time since I've heard that song in its entirety, and because of the introduction I found myself paying close attention to it and let the sensations of the music and the lyrics working together affect me. I haven't taken recreational drugs in close to twelve years, so what I felt can't be put down to that. Arlo's personalization of the song allowed me to go inside it, travel with it as the lyrics say, and perhaps truly experience what Dylan had intended his audience to feel when he first wrote it.
So it went as the evening progressed. With each song's introduction revealing a little bit more about Arlo, allowing us to get to know him a little better, the songs became more and more personal messages from him to us. Songs like "Coming into Los Angles" become funnier and in some ways more poignant when he talks of being searched four times while walking through the airport terminal. Especially when he tries to explain to the security personnel that "I've never become the threat I hoped to".
Of course some things have changed in this world in the last forty years, and to prove it he recounted an incident where he and his son Abe were waiting in a departure lounge for a plane, and he noticed two very obvious Secret Service agents across the way. "Being a child of the sixties of course my first reaction upon seeing them was Oh, Oh."
Sure enough one of them marches over and stand towering over him and gruffly demands if he is "Guthrie". When Arlo confesses that yes, that's who he is, the agent stares at him and then: "Guthrie, are you bringing in a couple of keys?" and cracks a big smile. He'd grown up with the music and loved it. Bought some pins and a baseball cap.
There were two songs he played that I'd never heard before, one was a song he wrote during Katrina and the other was a song his father had written out lyrics for but had never had the chance to write the music to. (Arlo's sister has been spending the last ten years organizing and arranging for this material to be recorded. Billy Bragg recorded a whole album of them called Mermaid Avenue named for the street the Guthrie family lived on in New York City) It was probably one of the last songs Woody wrote, because it was shortly after that he had to be hospitalized, and he was already losing the ability to control his hands.
"My Peace" is only two verses long, but it's a beautiful song about the ability we all have to bring a little peace with us where ever we go, and what a wonderful gift it is to share it with others. While listening to this I couldn't help but get a mental image of Woody hunched over a scrap of paper (according to Arlo you'd have not wanted his dad as a house guest, unless you wanted to wake up in the morning and find every surface in your house not moving covered in song lyrics) with his hand curled around a pen forcing it to write out the words to the song in his head.
Musically Arlo took us on a journey, jumping backwards and forwards in time. From Cisco Huston's "St. James Infirmary", an instrumental honky-tonk tune he learnt from the stack of 78 rpm records his father kept in the basement, Steve Goodman's "City Of New Orleans", the previously mentioned recent song about watching Katrina on television, and a tune called (I don't know if you're familiar with it or not) "Alice's Restaurant"
He only plays it every ten years now, when he goes on these special anniversary tours, and probably a good portion of the crowd were there just to be able to say that they saw him perform it live and in person. I don't think anyone was disappointed. Somehow he was able to make the song as funny and important as it was the first time I ever heard it.
At one point in my life I had been able to recite the damn thing word for word, and have heard countless versions of it on record. Hearing it last night, long after the Viet Nam war has been over, I realized it still was topical; obviously not for the references to the war, but for its observations about the inanity of the system and its sheer irreverence.
In some ways it's quintessential Arlo, as he takes an event that happened in his life and invests it with meanings that are universal to all of us. Who hasn't experienced a moment of irony like that of officer Obie's carefully collected "27 8x10 colour glossy photographs with circles on the front and a paragraph on the back of each one" being rendered useless because the judge is blind? All of us can relate to his breaking down in tears at this example of "American blind justice".
Something that often gets lost in the shuffle about Arlo is the fact that he is an accomplished guitar player. You're not aware of it on his records, and if you haven't seen him play in a while it's easy to lump him in amongst three chord folk singers. But last night watching him lay down beautiful leads on songs like "St. James Infirmary" and "Coming Into Los Angeles" I was reminded yet again that he's no slouch whether he's playing either one of his twelve or six string guitars or is parked behind the keys of electric piano.
His whole band delivered exemplary performances, but of special note was Gordon Titcomb on mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel guitar. Pedal steel guitar is such an easy instrument to make sound horrible, or completely out of place, but Gordon Titcomb was masterful in making it work on all the songs it was used.
After the concert I promised Gordon that I would do my best not to call him Brent in the review. Brent Titcomb is a highly gifted Canadian folk musician, and Gordon said that ever since he and Brent had met up at the Ottawa folk festival, they've been trying to work out how they are related. They just figure that anyone with that last name in common just have to be cousins of some kind.
The fact that I felt comfortable enough after the concert, as did many other people, to go up and talk to Arlo and the other musicians as the were packing up and getting ready to leave is an indication of the atmosphere that had been created over the evening. Musically impeccable, emotionally uplifting, and warm and friendly, it was an evening that I'll not soon forget.
He may only sing "Alice's Restaurant" every ten years, but he has so much more to offer than just that one song. Don't wait for the fiftieth anniversary to go and see him. You'll be doing yourself a great disservice.
(Originally published in May 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.