Like his father, Woody, before him, Arlo Guthrie has never been about the range or perfection of his singing voice or technical ability as a guitar player. Heck, it really isn't even about his songwriting, though he writes good ones. Arlo's primary offering is his ability to entertain while making meaningful statements.
In his music and his stage show, Guthrie blends lightheartedness and sincerity with ease. This past Friday, South Florida fans were treated to an intimate night with the troubadour that was filled with songs, stories, laughter, and a warm family vibe.
With his son Abe on his right and his grandson Krishna on his left, he invited the folks in the seats into the family circle as they delivered a full night's worth of trademark Guthrie goodness.
As promised, the familiar "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" riff was never plucked on his 12-string, despite calls for it at the end of the night. In response to the pleas for the 18-minute epic, he said something about Groundhog Day as a reason for not playing it every night as some people wish he would. Fair enough.
He did play his other hits, including "City of New Orleans" and "The Motorcycle Song," as well as some beautiful newer stuff and some old folk and blues numbers. Of course, all the songs were strung together with delightful storytelling and general, stoned rapping.
For instance, surrounding a couple of Lead Belly songs, he recalled standing up next to the blues legend as a youngster and coming up to his knee, then later in life embarking on a journey to find his grave. In the latter story, when he and his companion finally found Lead Belly's resting place, he sat down on the grave and played "Alabama Bound," which he then played for the Parker Playhouse audience.
Among the other meandering raps were the story of riding a train down to New Orleans after Katrina to help raise funds with the help of Richard Pryor and Willie Nelson, and another in which he vocalized support for the Occupy movement. Last fall, he and Pete Seeger marched with protesters in New York.
Though his political views were made clear, so was his enthusiasm for freedom beyond any particular point of view. He told the crowd that he sent a letter to Hank Williams Jr. after the singer was criticized for making a controversial remark about Barack Obama. In the letter, he told Williams to keep speaking his mind. "It's better to say something wrong than to not say anything at all," Guthrie told the crowd.
Right or wrong, Guthrie has not shied away one bit from the mode of free expression that characterized the movement within which he grew up. Fortunately, his charming style of doing so only seems to have ripened with age.
Better than: Getting busted for littering by officer Obey.
The crowd: Mostly folks who were old enough to be at Woodstock and cool enough to still hang out.
Random detail: After the show, Arlo was gracious enough to write in my actual critic's notebook. He scribbled a phrase that will be familiar to those who read this County Grind piece on the singer: "We bought the freakin' church!" This made me very glad.
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