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Published: 2005/05/20
by Mike Greenhaus

Arlo Guthrie, Center for the Performing Arts, Staten Island, NY-5/7

Like many, Arlo Guthrie has aged into his father. His father just happens to be Woody Guthrie.

Looking back, it was a slow, unassuming growth process, though a fitting one for folk’s first family. Since spinning a 1965 Thanksgiving Day arrest into an eighteen-minute Age of Aquarius anthem, Guthrie has flirted with icon status, earned a handful of People Magazine spreads and, gradually, slipped into obscurity—-playing family-style picnics and remote theaters awaiting gentrification. In that time, he’s shelved his best-known composition, the "Alice’s Restaurant Massacre," and added a handful of Woody Guthrie covers into his ever-changing repertoire, emerging as a wandering symbol of folk’s nomadic existence. In short, he’s become one of the quasi-fictional characters which made his father, arguably, the greatest America songwriter of the 20th century.

Despite his blood ties, Guthrie was never hailed as one of the true "children of Woody." In certain respects, folk-luminaries like Pete Seeger are the true torchbearers of the first person accounts that defined Woody Guthrie’s songwriting. Indeed, Arlo’s stories are more obtusely comical and layered with the unpolished grit that characterized the hippie-folk community. Yet, over time, the younger Guthrie has found a novel hook to attach his ADD-approved commentaries to his father’s canon. If Woody Guthrie’s anthems have been crystallized into the type of American fables found in high school textbooks than his son’s rambling interruptions recall the deep, slightly darkened theories of a stoned-out college professor.

And, on this quiet spring evening, Guthrie’s never-ending tour returned to such an academic setting, rolling through the College of Staten Island’s Center for the Performing Arts. A cultural outpost located deep within New York’s forgotten borough, the shiny Center for the Performing Arts appeared like a mirage at the end of a 90-minute trek that required both a boat and a bus, as well as a mile hike to the college’s remote arts complex. A ferry-ride from Manhattan’s southern most border, New Yorkers making the pilgrimage were fortunate enough to sail by the City’s two most prominent patriotic symbols: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. En route to another show, such iconic images would fade into the background of more immediate urban adventures. Yet, on this night, such loaded monuments seemed to offer the evening’s opening act.

A healthy mix of local residents and coffee-shop folk kids, Guthrie’s crowd didn’t come for his songs, they arrived to hear his space. Structuring his set around a breadth of covers, ranging from Kris Kristofferson to Doc Watson, Guthrie, essentially, depersonalized his "songs." In certain ways, Guthrie’s decision is a bit surprising since he is one of the most heavy-handed narrators of the rock-era. With the exception of a few standards like "City of New Orleans," which earned Guthrie some chart success in the 1970s, Guthrie’s numbers are wide open for wordy improvisation, mixing recorded vocal passages with spur-of-the-moment narratives. Stopping songs mid-stanza, and rambling on for over ten minutes, Guthrie offers a two-set spoken word performance, using his numbers as structural nuts-and-bolts. Before offering "Me and Bobby McGee," Guthrie spent a good chunk of time recalling how he introduced Janis Joplin to her trademark number. A somewhat blurry account, Guthrie’s story, at times, bordered on a tall-tale, used to teach the predominantly rock crowd about his generation’s communal nature. Yet, Guthrie’s prose was so direct and hesitantly eloquent, that his back story cane off as some of his best and, most personal, artistic offerings.

Despite playing both guitar and piano throughout the evening, Guthrie is primarily a vocalist. Leaving instrumental duties to Gordon Titcomb and his son Abe, Guthrie used his acoustic sound to score his stories. For his part, Abe stood behind a single keyboard smiling with a hint of both sonly pride and embarrassment. Compared to the more aggressive or jazz-oriented folk artists that fill Manhattan’s downtown clubs, Guthrie’s sound is, admittedly, somewhat square. Abe, who is also known to perform more jam-oriented music in the band Xavier, has proved his abilities elsewhere and, on this night, relegated his 80s-sounding keyboard to accompaniment. Yet, in spite of this, Guthrie is still a deeply improvisational artist, leading each of his songs on word-heavy tangents and, sometimes, returning back to his composition’s given structure.

For many, Guthrie’s show peaked with a reading of his father’s "This Land is Your Land." Halfway through the song’s third verse, Guthrie segued into an extended political rap, which basically boiled down to the following: the United State’s current regime sucks. A soothing storyteller with a scratchy post-Dylan voice, Guthrie’s narratives have a sincere quality. Not as direct as Dan Bern, Guthrie prefers metaphors, using more definitive statements to hammer a point in like an exclamation point. And, in such a context, it didn’t matter that Guthrie skipped a few verses of "This Land is Your Land," as long as he managed to successfully reset his father’s most famous protest song in a tangible context for New York’s only red borough.

Like any artist who stays clear of his signature song, Guthrie’s entire set was loaded with hopeful anticipation. And, before returning for a brief encore, he tackled his critic’s head-on after a group of fans began to chant for Alice’s most famous song. In truth, Guthrie’s seemingly spontaneous rebuttals are actually staged-responses, slowed to meet the pace of his truly off-the-cusp banter. Refusing to play "Alice’s Restaurant" for much of the past two decades, Guthrie has composed quick one-liners ("actually we are going to play something we know") and more complex, sympathetic stories, to cushion his decision.
Blurring the line between story and song, Guthrie spent spend at least a song’s worth of time explaining his decision, setting his disclaimer to the tune of his most famous number. Nodding to his children, who were unable to come to his aid when he first forgot "Alice’s" lyrics, Guthrie offered his show’s best punch line with a wry smile: "I know my Daddy’s songs."

An underused musician, Titcomb shined during Guthrie’s final number, a bluegrass jam based around an old Doc Watson tune. "When we’re not performing, we like to play," Guthrie said before the instrumental ditty. Indeed, it’s hard to tell where his performance ended and a relaxed discussion began. And, in Woody’s eyes, that was precisely the point.

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