Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Kid Did Alright: Arlo Guthrie, Live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (Oct. 26, 2012)

Arlo Guthrie (Photo by Jon C. Hancock)

Arlo Guthrie is the 65-year-old son of legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie. Sixty-five years old! He was just a kid in 1967 when he hit the ground running with his 20-minute classic tale of taking the garbage out one Thanksgiving, “Alice’s Restaurant.” But now he’s 65. Woody was only 55 years old when he passed away the same year Arlo hit it big. Huntington’s chorea was the cause, and Arlo spent a few years wondering if he’d inherited that curse. He looks pretty good, still fairly hippie-like with his long white hair and droopy moustache, but he walks straight, and plays guitar with confidence and skill. And he is one heck of a storyteller.

The week before, Jackie, his wife of 43 years, passed away. Inoperable cancer they said. Arlo was in the middle of a Canadian tour, and while he announced that he would be cancelling some shows and rescheduling others he promised to complete this Canadian tour. He was booked for Brampton, and St. Catharines, as well as Burlington’s new theatre all within a few days, and I wondered what he might be like. Would grief cause him to fail? Absolutely not. He mentioned Jackie only once in a charming story about his first trip from his Coney Island home to California. He was 18 and his mother told him he’d have to stay with family or friends. “We don’t have any family or friends in California!” he reminded her. “Well,” she replied, “You can stay with Jack.” Jack was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Woody was a major influence on Ramblin’ Jack), and what 18-year-old kid wouldn’t want to stay with Ramblin’ Jack? He took Arlo to a rodeo, where Arlo saw the most beautiful girl in the world riding a pony at the head of the parade. A couple years later he married that girl, and they stayed together for 43 years, through thick and thin. Then he sang a song that wasn’t on his set-list for the night: “Highway in the Wind” from that first album. It was a moving moment.

It wasn’t the only one. He took the stage all by himself. Last time I saw him he’d been accompanied by a band made up of family and friends, but this time, in celebration of Woody’s Centennial year, he was doing it alone. Here Comes the Kid tour he calls it. Just Arlo on a stool with a few guitars and a beautiful grand piano. He sang his dad’s songs and his own. And in between he regaled us with stories of growing up with Woody.

Woody the merchant seaman was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Twice. He brought back a fiddle from one of those trips and Arlo still has it. Woody wrote “The Sinking of the Ruben James” to honor the dead. The song names all 86 victims. Arlo didn’t sing this one, but he did sing “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” which goes:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane.
All they will call you will be … Deportees.

Names were important to Woody. That’s how you remember someone.

There were plenty of tales like this. Easy-going remembrances told in Arlo’s laconic voice, with a hint of Okie accent added for authenticity. After all, “the Kid” grew up in New York and has lived in Massachusetts for years. He had the audience in the palm of his hand from the minute he walked on stage.

His own songs were potent too. A song from 1989 which he wrote about Russian soldiers leaving Afghanistan took on new meaning in 2012 as my wife and I recalled our own son arriving home from the same place:

And there won't be any victory parades
For those that's coming back
They'll fly them in at midnight
And unload the body sacks
And the living will be walking down
A long and lonely road
Because nobody seems to care these days
When a soldier makes it home
Fortunately our son and his compatriots all walked off the plane, but there were plenty who didn’t. At the airport that day, there were quite a few of us who cared when their soldiers made it home. I shared a tear or two with my wife.

After nearly an hour, Arlo took a 15 minute break, and when we gathered again he sat behind the piano. He told of how his mother had encouraged (read forced) him to take piano lessons. How he got his teacher to play the piece three times so he could memorize it rather than read the music. How his step-father tried to enforce the practice regimen, but since he couldn’t read music either, Arlo could easily play some ragtime piece and claim that it was Beethoven. Then how Marjorie (his mother) said, “You will sit at that piano for an hour!” and he sat there on the piano bench … practicing his guitar. He must have done some work on the 88s because his New Orleans piano solo was superb. Then it was back to the stool and guitars for more songs and stories.

There have been several Woody Guthrie tributes in this 100th anniversary of his birth. Repackaged and re-mastered CDs, concerts, tributes at festivals and even new music added to Woody’s archived lyrics, but none more appropriate than having Arlo sing his father’s songs, and tell the history of their creation. Although the weather outside was threatening, cold and rainy, it was a warm and memorable night inside the Performing Arts Centre. The Kid did all right. He even sang “This Land Is Your Land” with the Canadian place names. The Kid’s got class!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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