Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion / Mike Stinson – McCabe’s Guitar Shop (Santa Monica, CA)
A surfeit of sheet music, stringed instruments, and exotic percussion toys crowd the walls of the acoustic listening room at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion took the stage on a Saturday night. Located on a quiet section of Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, McCabe’s offers a calming musical respite from the ceaseless commotion of neighboring Los Angeles, and was a fitting venue for the duo’s laid-back, well-honed acoustic show.
Irion’s former Los Angeles bandmate Mike Stinson opened, accompanied by onetime X guitarist Tony Gilkyson. Stinson opened with a mellow folksy tune called “When My Angel Gets High”, followed by a drinking anthem off his debut CD Jack Of All Heartache. From there, sadness rained down in a series of losin’ songs so low in their tone and lyrics that the crowd didn’t know whether to clap or just thank God they weren’t him. With Gilkyson’s brilliant backing, Stinson delivered a top-notch performance, though one better suited for a honky-tonk.
The darkness of the opening set put the optimism of the headliners in greater relief. Irion’s easy charm and Guthrie’s broad smile seduced the crowd immediately and particularly piqued the interest of one audience member, a two-year-old girl who stood on her chair and started dancing the moment Irion and Guthrie began to sing “The Swing Of Things”, an upbeat love ballad about learning to know each other better.
From there, the duo sang a slow, haunting piece called “Georgia Pines”, their flute-like harmonizing both uplifting and eerie. That segued into “DC-9er”, Irion’s playful blues tune from his Unity Lodge album about flying to meet his baby on a sketchy puddle-jumper. The evening’s high point was a song from Guthrie’s self-titled solo debut called “River”, during which her clear soprano gently shaped the refrain into a bewitching mantra that left the audience hypnotized.
Irion moved between hollowbody and National steel guitar throughout the show, employing the warbly effect of a slide on almost half the songs. In addition to displaying skillful musicianship and careful songwriting, Irion and Guthrie related to the audience warmly, making everyone feel like they were part of the show.
They braided their set with stories of Guthrie’s father Arlo, of digging through piles of her grandfather Woody’s unpublished songs, of sleeping in a tepee, and of weaving yarns with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Without being saccharine, they sang and talked of family, hope, love and humor. We left cheerful…and then tried to remember where we parked our friggin’ cars.