By Mike Finkelstein
On Friday night Arlo Guthrie and several more of his family and cohorts played to a nearly packed house in a UCLA Live event at Royce Hall. The largely gray-haired and gray-bearded crowd was treated to a quickly paced and warmly delivered show by a true hippie icon. Guthrie looked robust, in dark clothes with thick white hair and a big white mustache to match. He is in fine shape and is a huge presence on stage.
Backed by a four-piece band that included his son Abe on keys and the three Burns sisters on backing vocals, Guthrie held court, moving between electric piano, several gorgeous 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars and harmonica. Most of all, he told stories musically and conversationally.
Arlo is probably best known for his mesmerizing and rambling hippie diatribe, “Alice’s Restaurant” – a song about avoiding the draft by virtue of being a convicted litterer (a true story, legend has it). It’s the way he talks his way through that song that has made his legacy endure as it has. Though he didn’t actually play the song Friday night, the set up for nearly each tune he did gave us our fill of his storytelling style, just the same. This turned out to be a clever way of giving the people what they wanted without devoting an inordinate amount of time to it.
On Friday, Guthrie culled songs not only from his father, but from sources like his friends Hoyt Axton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Being the son of folk music luminary Woody Guthrie put him in the same world as many of his dad’s high profile musical friends. He recalled that as a two year old child, he actually was knee high to Leadbelly. And then he launched into a rockin’ version of “Alabama Bound.” On a song like this one the clarity and separation of his runs in the low registers really gave a sense that he learned a lot about how to play twelve string guitar by listening to Leadbelly.
Throughout the set, the band played softly in the pocket and made sure to leave a lot of room for Arlo’s voice and his large, jangly guitar sound. Several times during the evening the band hit a gospel sounding groove between the drums, keys and backing vocals.
As Arlo pointed out, though a song like “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” is some 60 years old, it sounds as though it could have been written yesterday. Based on a set of words his father wrote about the disrespectful treatment of migrant farm workers in California, it is simply poignant. Guthrie’s biggest single hit was his definitive version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” A vividly detailed description of a train ride through the south, the song has always been a gem. The band sounded great playing it and the Burns sisters’ harmonies particularly brought back the way it used to sound on the radio.
No show of Arlo’s would be complete without “Coming Into Los Angeles,” a familiar tale for those who remember, back in the day, the nerves involved in smuggling dope past customs officers. Arlo’s show entertained literally from beginning to end, as he wove his huge charisma through stories, opinions, observations, children’s poetry, and music into a very satisfying blend.
Opening the show were the aforementioned Burns sisters as well as a very short but nonetheless sweet two song set from Arlo’s daughter, Sara, and her husband, Johnny Irion. Playing their acoustic guitars capoed sympathetically at the 2nd and 4th fret and singing beautifully together they got the show off to a sweet start. It just rolled smoothly through the evening from there.
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