Published Apr 22, 2016The nature of music has changed as much as the progress of civilization since over the past three generations. A hundred years ago, when Woody Guthrie was a kid, recorded music was far from ubiquitous. Instead, songs were passed along in person, absorbed, augmented or liberally borrowed from by those younger. Nowadays, artists have several lifetimes' worth of recordings to draw from and compete with, fractured into a million different scenes and genres worldwide, and yet there are still pockets where the old folk lineage remains unbroken. That's the way it is with the Guthrie family.
Arlo's youngest daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, opened the show with a set list largely drawn from the songs she heard in her youth. Perhaps due to nerves or over-rehearsing, Sarah ended up repeating a verse in her first song, "Catch the Wind" by Donovan, but she copped to the mistake as she waited for it to come back around. She settled in right after that, helping the crowd sing the joyous chorus for "Go Waggaloo" (a song based on Woody Guthrie's lyrics that she wrote for a children's album) and delivering a devastating rendition of "When I'm Gone" by Phil Ochs.
Her voice was pure and sweet, like Aimee Mann if she never had her spirit crushed by the weight of the world, but you could really tell she was her father's daughter in her banter, which had a graceful ease about it as she discussed fond memories of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and her daughter's vision of an angel turning into a star.
Bridging the gap between sets, Jon Wokuluk's long-lost claymation video for "The Motorcycle Song" played on a big screen as Arlo and his band — drummer Terry Hall, bassist Darren Todd, guitarist Bobby Sweet and Arlo's son, keyboardist Abe Guthrie — took the stage and played the comical, pickle-laden song out to its conclusion. They quickly changed gears with "Chilling of the Evening," which featured one of the most pitch-perfect harmonica solos I've ever heard, care of the great master. Both of these songs were on Arlo's debut 1967 album, Alice's Restaurant, whose titular track was the reason behind this tour.
Written over the course of a few months, from a fateful Thanksgiving garbage mishap in 1965 to his draft refusal the following year due to his arrest for littering, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of "Alice's Restaurant Massacre." The 18-minute-long anti-stupidity song was not Arlo's biggest chart success, but it remains his most well-known, having been turned into a major motion picture in 1969.
Since the early '80s, he made a choice to only break out the wry monologue for the big dates such as decade anniversaries, and it's doubtful to get any bigger than the 50th, as he often joked himself. To add contemporary reason to sing the song this tour, he capped the story off with an allusion to government spying, noting that his fingerprints from the draft are still sitting in a file somewhere in Washington 50 years later. After performing the track, Arlo regretted, "If I ever would have imagined that song was to become so popular, I would have made it a hell of a lot shorter. It's too late now."
Throughout his hour-and-a-half-long set (thankfully broken up by an intermission), Arlo spun many fine yarns. He mused about the nature of memory (indiscriminately clearing out what already happened to make room for things that might happen), how the best children's songs gave you a reason to stay under the covers at night (namely, fear) and about drinking several cases of champagne before falling in a hole that somehow landed him onstage at Woodstock, among many others that often ended in a much different place than they began. And yet, they never seemed to go off the rails; I could have happily listened to him ramble for two hours.
The most touching moments came when Guthrie relayed the story of going on the road for the first time, when Ramblin' Jack took him to a rodeo, and he first laid eyes on who would later become his wife of 43 years (she passed away in 2012). He wrote "Highway in the Wind" for her, also from Alice's Restaurant, and a montage of family photos appeared as he sang and played in her memory. Moves like that would probably come off cheesy for a lot of artists, but Arlo remains as captivating a storyteller as he ever was. He's one of the last great folk alchemists, knowing just how to soften the hardest truths with light expressions or when to be deadpan to highlight the absurd.
Sure, maybe his voice is a little rougher around the edges, and his fingers have lost a glint of their nimbleness, but he's still got it where it counts. His hair is bright white now, and the years weigh heavily on his body, but he still has that twinkle of warm humour and conscious rebellion in his eye that you can see so clearly in the Woodstock and Alice's Restaurant films. He still plays acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano wonderfully, and still sings like an old soul in a younger frame, searching for peace and greater understanding.
Sarah Lee came back out and joined Arlo for one of his last songs, the Travellers' version of Woodie's famed "This Land is Your Land," but he stumbled on the altered chorus. Taking a hiatus mid-song, this gave him another opportunity to ramble, as he said, "Sometimes, you know, you just gotta do what you're doing, even if you don't know what it is."
Having performed on April 21, the same day that the death of Prince was announced, the need to appreciate the great masters while they're still here hung especially heavy in the air. Doubtlessly, the sold-out crowd at the lush Chan Centre soaked up the moment. One hopes the great comet Arlo will circle around these parts again, but truly, we are blessed to have been visited at all.