A Review: Arlo Guthrie Journeys On In Riverside, California Concert
When George Burns won his first and only Oscar at age 80 he quipped,’if you stick around long enough you get to be new again.’ At last Sunday night’s concert in Riverside, California, veteran folksinger and humorist, Arlo Guthrie, proved this to be true and then some. His new Journey On Tour stop in the Southern California desert community was alive with old and new songs, stories and a renewed energy for all of us to ‘Journey On,’ as he said in one song, which felt like the central message of the show; not only to his own generation but to all of them past, present and future.
The daunting thing about being a folk singer who has built his career on providing commentary for the changing times and the absurdities thereof is you can get caught, by no fault of your own, in a kind of strange time tunnel, identified with one very long song or some cultural event that now shows up in the history books as a landmark for a generation. For the unitiated, Arlo’s epic 20 minute talking blues song, Alice’s Restaurant, provided us, during the the-all-too-serious late 60’s, with something to laugh about. It went on to become a hit movie and a perinnial Thanksgiving favorite. He was also, by a quirk of fate, featured in the movie of the historic Woodstock festival when due to bad weather he found himself on stage a day too soon(and in an altered state). Ultimately, he was forever immortalized in the Oscar-winning documentary singing his now classic (anti) drug-smuggling song, “Comin’ into Los Angeles.”
For years, he has endured constant requests for “Alice’s Restaurant, ” from enthusiastic audiences coming to relive their youth. To accomodate on past tours he has obliged, most notably in 2005 with a 40th anniversary tour for the famous song and story. But the problem with Guthrie’s being over identified with one song and one era is while even though through his songs, performances and recordings over the last four decades, he has stayed relevant to his journey and to ours, much of this has been lost on the general concert-going public who still see him as the Arlo of the Alice’s Restaurant/Woodstock era.
However, to the discerning ear, Sunday night’s show made it clear that Arlo Guthrie’s legacy is not about one song or story, but about the volumes of songs and stories he’s brought to us over the years. Fortunately, as of the last ten years, he has increasingly toured in larger venues and if shows like last Sunday’s are any indication, he just keeps getting better at his craft.
With the harmonic and soulful Burns Sisters (Marie, Annie and Jeannie) and a band which included son, Abe Guthrie and long-time drummer Terry a la Berry(Hall), along with Bobby Sweet on electric guitar and Jody Lampro on bass guitar, he was able to enlarge his set to rarely included songs. It gave him the opportunity to kick up the volume and energy for some fine musical interludes and arrangements. It was a well-paced, entertaining and fresh show highlighting his strengths not only as a humorist, but also as a skilled musician and fine songwriter.
With all of his strengths in play, there were new stories, like the one about a drug bust at his local airport involving his wife, Jackie, which led to a well-deserved dedication of “Comin’ into Los Angeles.” There were some familiar songs(“City of New Orleans”),obscure ones (Hoyt Axton’s “Evangeline”) and his nearly forgotten originals( “Days are Short.” from his bestselling Hobo’s Lullaby album). He also told us stories of his pilgrim- travels with his guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, to those in hospice care and then sang the profound, “Wake Up Dead” to illustrate. His pro-troops, anti-war song from 1993, “When A Soldier Makes It Home,” about the isolation and lonliness of veterans after war, rang with newly discovered relevance today. He also brought back his own version of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” relevant again with the current events in Wisconsin.
One of the added dimensions to an Arlo show these days is the transformation of his father, Woody Guthrie, from a great folk singer and songwriter to a contemplative and lyrical artist based on the volumes of his words uncovered from throughout his life inlcuding his last days spent struggling with a genetic disease. Songs like “My Mother’s Voice,” with music by Janis Ian and “My Peace” which Arlo put to melody, reveal Woody to be a soul whose perceptions were so quick and deep, it was hard for even him to keep up with them all. But, he never stopped writing and trying to catch them. Fortunately, Arlo has added these new songs to his current sets which breathes new life into the shows and leaves the audience with the good feeling that Woody may be somewhere around as his words are being honored with so much love and respect. It’s almost as if it’s a double-billed father and son show in some respects, as Woody seems just as alive as anyone on stage.
Sunday night’s show also featured a surprise walk-on by Arlo’s daughter, Sarah Lee and her husband,Johnny Irion, who were in town for a children’s concert in near-by Redlands. The Sunday night concert was the concluding part of Bodie House Music’s Guthrie themed weekend for the Inland Empire which also included a lecture by singer songwriter Joel Rafael and a concert by Austin’s Jimmy LaFave. Sarah Lee and Johnny performed two songs, “Never Far From My Heart,” and “Target On Your Heart” from their fine new Bright Examples album. The performance and the album demonstrate how well established they are now in the world of Americana music. The Burns Sisters followed with a set of three songs including Ellis Paul’s haunting music written to Woody’s lyrics, “God’s Promise.”
The balance in dealing with topical matters that Arlo managed to keep this night, as he has done in times past, is to approach the story and the song in a way that brings people together rather than divides them. Rather than avoiding controversy, he looks it square in the eye, grins at it and then invites us all to sing along together, no matter our political or religious beliefs. Ultimately, this was the universal insight he brought out with two songs which came near the end of the show. Arlo’s own just- written song, “Hymn” with an inspirational gospel feel, speaks about love and forgiveness in a weary world:
After concluding the show with his enhanced storytelling version of “This Land Is Your Land,” he returned with an encore. His final song, “My Peace,” was written from scribbled notes jotted down by Woody when he was in the state hospital suffering from Huntington’s Chorea. On Sunday night, this song became an incarnation of what folk music is all about. The song brought alive the story of one man’s discovery of hope found at a time of great despair, those final years Woody endured as he was dying. Through lyrical alchemy he made those words, scribbled out on a notepad at some obscure time, into a statement of personal and universal hope and then handed them down to become this song, ‘My Peace,” decades later brought to music by his son and then delivered to an appreciative audience who left the Riverside theater last Sunday night singing those vulnerable words from so many lost years ago:
my peace is worth
a thousand times more
than anything I own.
I pass my peace around and around
past hands of every hue
My peace is all I’ve got
that I can give to you.
And as Arlo sang in another song that evening:
“Only the words of love kept alive are worthy of not being wasted.”
Arlo’s Journey On tour continues with dates in Northern California and Nevada. For more info visit