The glow of lineage
Arlo Guthrie and his family remind us we’re all just human
A long time ago, when I was in fourth grade, we had this teacher, Mrs. Wilson. She was a mean old boot, widowed, and only ever smiled when she punished somebody. And in those days paddling was the punishment for every infraction, no matter how slight; any problem she couldn’t be bothered with actually solving could seemingly be beaten into temporary submission with a heavy, flat, oblong piece of wood. That didn’t exactly place Mrs. Wilson at the top of our favorite-teachers list.
But then one day Mrs. Wilson walked into class with one of those portable record players balanced in one crooked arm and some albums under the other. She told us that Woody Guthrie had died. He had been a great man and had written a whole bunch of great songs. We spent the afternoon listening. I didn’t realize how many songs he’d written that I knew.
Some of us took a different view of Mrs. Wilson that day. Suddenly, for once, she just seemed human. And maybe that day the death of Guthrie reminded her that all of us, no matter what size, were just human too.
A subjective-seeming intro, I know. But perhaps pertinent to a review of Arlo Guthrie. If there is one gift that Arlo shares with his late father, it is the ability through direct speech and song to gently remind us that we are all just human.
Last Thursday night, backed only by his son Abe on keyboards and vocals and daughter Sara on acoustic guitar and vocals, Guthrie put on a great show that lasted over two hours at Laxson Auditorium. And he played just about everything: a quick-paced “Coming into Los Angeles,” a moving “The City of New Orleans,” a nice cluster of Woody’s songs (including “Pretty Boy Floyd” and later, for an encore, “This Land Is Your Land"), a profound version of Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In,” and of course “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Guthrie sang well, his Dylanesque delivery both strong and enjoyable. He spent most of his time at an eight-foot grand piano, banging out chords and flourishes with great élan. And between songs—even during songs—he told tales, reminisced about folks he’d met and places he’d been, and offered not-so-common-these-days common sense on political situations. As a friend commented later, never before was the spirit of Woody more keenly felt during one of Arlo’s concerts. Certainly the presence of Arlo’s son and daughter suffused that feeling, imbuing the proceedings with the glow of lineage, of fine old family traditions passed along.
While Abe was somewhat quiet, Sara was a chip off the old block. Amiable, prone to tale-telling like her father and grandfather, possessed of a Patsy Cline-like alto, Sara charmed with her solo singing spots, including an original, “Big Square Walking” (she pointed out that the squares in Chico’s sidewalks were just her size for not hitting cracks!).
And “Alice’s Restaurant"? Was it still good, even after a zillion performances? Somehow Guthrie made it work, zipping along through the story, saving the sing-along chorus to the last, interrupting to drop in tales, one of which was the highly amusing story of learning at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration party that the Nixons owned a copy of Alice’s Restaurant.
“Now,” Arlo wryly noted, “'Alice’s Restaurant’ is precisely 18 minutes 50 seconds long. And that’s exactly the length…”
Well, even Tricky Dick was only human.