Woody Guthrie Tribute – (Cleveland, OH)
One of the stated missions of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is education, and it certainly fulfilled that goal with a week-long celebration of Woody Guthrie in late September. A series of seminars, films and other activities was capped by two tribute concerts September 28-29 at different venues in Cleveland.
The main event was the Sunday night show at the 2,600-seat Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, but a second show on Saturday at a less fancy venue (and with a less fancy ticket price) seemed perhaps more fitting to honor Guthrie’s working-class life and spirit. The informal-style “hootenanny” was held at the Odeon nightclub before a sold-out crowd of roughly 1,000. Artists including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo and Jefferson Airplane veteran Jorma Kaukonen shone a light not just on Guthrie’s songs, but on his impact on contemporary music as well.
The evening was hosted by Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who immediately established the informal atmosphere by inviting the audience to join her in her “living room for an evening with family and friends.” She reminisced about her childhood, expressing her hope that the evening would be like those nights in the Guthrie home when musicians gathered to play and have a good time.
Jimmy LaFave, the lone performer from Guthrie’s native Oklahoma, kicked off the show with a sensitive version of Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”, his vocals and acoustic guitar backed by mandolin, tasteful electric guitar and emotive lap steel from Kaukonen. He followed with two originals very much in the Guthrie tradition. “Buffalo Return To The Plains” was a romantic tribute to the lost frontier, while “Woody’s Road” concerned searching for truth, meaning and life along the back streets and byways of America.
LaFave was followed by Paul Metsa, a blues-tinged folk singer/songwriter from Minneapolis. He opened with an emotionally charged rendition of Guthrie contemporary Brownie McGhee’s “Robot”, a melancholy tale of life on death row. LaFave, Kaukonen and Syd Straw joined Metsa for a raw, powerful version that seemed both unrehearsed and deeply honest. He was then joined by Britain’s John Wesley Harding for a rip-roaring version of Guthrie’s “Vigilante”.
Metsa was followed by Country Joe McDonald, playing the same acoustic guitar he banged away on at Woodstock a quarter-century ago. Not surprisingly, McDonald led the crowd in singing along to his irreverent Vietnam era anti-war song “Fixin’ To Die Rag”. Harding then returned to the stage for his own set, and Kaukonen and Syd Straw also performed.
But the show’s best moments were the performances of Escovedo and Gilmore. Escovedo kicked off his portion with a nicely rendered take on the classic bluesy-folk song “When The Curfew Blows”. Arguably the highlight of the evening was his yearning and despondent reading of “Deportee”, the Guthrie song inspired by a newspaper story about the crash of a plane carrying undocumented workers back to Mexico. Nora Guthrie joined Escovedo to sing backing vocals.
Gilmore’s brief set was inspired, as he ran through wonderful acoustic versions of some of his own songs, including the title cut of his new album, “Braver Newer World”, and another new tune, the romantic ballad “Sally”. He delivered a rollicking rendition of Butch Hancock’s “My Mind’s Got A Mind Of Its Own” before Kaukonen joined him for Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ”.
All the artists gathered onstage for the finale, running through several of Guthrie’s songs, ending with “This Land Is Your Land”. Like the rest of the show, it seemed unorganized and chaotic, but it was warm, passionate and powerful. Woody would have been proud.
The second night, at the elegant Severance Music Hall, featured Guthrie’s son Arlo, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Ely, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Soul Asylum’s David Pirner, Indigo Girls, Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco. Actor and filmmaker Tim Robbins acted as emcee and spoke Woody’s words between sets. These moments accented Guthrie’s genius, which gave the world a voluminous body of work that included over a thousand songs as well as books, cartoons, letters and essays. “I leak words,” Woody once said, and this night was all about those words.
Every song performed was good, beginning with DiFranco’s whispered yet urgent offering of “Do Re Mi” sung like a matter of life or death. With help from the Indigo Girls, she followed with two of her own songs, the penetrating “Out Of Rage” and the wickedly funny “Not A Pretty Girl”.
British folk-rocker Bragg opened with Guthrie’s “Farmer Labor Train” and then premiered two new songs based on long-forgotten Guthrie poems Bragg has recently put to music. “The Unwelcomed Guest” casts the classic Robin Hood tale in the most beautiful melody to ever carry Guthrie’s pointed words, and the slight rockabilly beat of “Against The Law” showcased Guthrie’s wonderful sense of exaggeration, in this instance railing about loss of freedom. The Indigo Girls followed with a heartfelt version of “Gypsy Davy” and with DiFranco turned in a gutsy performance of the classic “Ramblin’ Round”.
Pirner came on like gangbusters with a great rendition of “Pretty Boy Floyd”, followed by two of his own songs including “String Of Pearls.” After a brief intermission, Robbins introduced Ramblin’ Jack for a by-the-book set that included “Dust Storm Disaster” and “1913 Massacre”.
The best moments of the night were yet to come. Springsteen electrified the audience with all 25 verses of “Tom Joad”, a haunting “Deportee”, a playful “Ridin’ In My Car”, a rockin’ “Goin Down This Old Dusty Road” with Ely, and finally a spirited “Oklahoma Hills” with both Ely and Arlo Guthrie.
After Arlo’s, set which included the children’s song “Ship In The Sky”, the entire cast and musicians from the previous night at the Odeon came together to sing “I’ve Got To Know” like a rallying cry, followed by Arlo leading the entire audience in “This Land Is Your Land”.
Pete Seeger came up from the audience to lead a closing singalong on “Hobo’s Lullaby”, Woody’s favorite song, and a near silence entered the hall. Only the soft singing of “Go To Sleep You Weary Hobo” could be heard. Just how Woody would have wanted it.