Sometimes life opens up a door and gives you a breathtaking view into something special and timeless. It’s rare in music and concert viewing, where the drudgery can be taxing at times. This band. This song. This encore. Too many events where the artist feels like they just merely feel the need to be loved without really offering anything that warrants that affection. Just cardboard cutouts with expensive haircuts, mildly swaying to-and-fro playing mid-tempo rock. For the uneducated, Arlo Guthrie is one of only a handful of people that can rightfully be called a living legend. A tireless creator, quietly churning out art of all kinds, Guthrie could have packed up and retired at the ripe old age of 20 when he released his largest hit, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” but he has never stopped.
A handful of hours viewing his performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 50th anniversary tour for the song and album it comes from, it becomes evident that he stands proudly as a pertinent link in an unbroken chain stretching far into the past, and potentially already, far, far into the future.
The set began on the more humorous side, the audience treated to a claymation cartoon apparently lost for forty years set to, “The Motorcycle Song.” In it, a guitar playing pickle rides around the desert singing the song’s simple refrain, “I don’t want a pickle / Just want to ride on my motorcycle.” Guthrie and his band eventually appeared on stage and played the latter half of the song live. The eerie “Darkest Hour” and the somber Cisco Houston cover “St. James Infirmary” followed, Guthrie effortlessly displaying an impressive mastery of lead guitar.
No Arlo Guthrie show would be complete without several segues to allow Guthrie to tell stories or just explain the back story behind each song. In introducing “Me and My Goose,” he reminisced of the times when he was very young where if you needed music at an event, “You had to go git somebody.” Explaining how each hired band was generally prepared to play songs of all different variety, including children’s songs. He then lamented how somewhere around twenty to thirty years ago for children’s songs, “Somewhere, that went to hell.” After explaining how kid’s song have turned into endless cheerful banality, armed at making every child feel special, he then proceeded to play, “Me and My Goose,” a dark tale of a family friend disappeared and ultimately served for dinner. He quipped afterwards, “I know it’s sick. That’s why I like it.”
“Ocean Crossing” and “Last Train” followed leading into a cover of Leadbelly’s “Pig Meet Papa.” Earlier in the set he explained in detail having a vivid memory of standing knee-high to Leadbelly, when he was just old enough to form memories. He further explained he endeavored to get good at 12-string guitar following the immense skill Leadbelly had with the instrument. Ending the first set proper, he told a hilarious story of his limited recollections of heading to the first Woodstock and ultimately being thrust out onstage a day early, before launching into “Coming Into Los Angeles.”
In case you’re wondering, Guthrie does not play his largest hit “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” on every tour. Long ago, he made a vow to only play it on every progressive 10-year anniversary tour. This being the 50th anniversary, it was played right at the beginning of the second set. The song, an 18-minute spoken word sandwiched in between two renderings of the most pleasant chorus imaginable, is a bit of an amorphous monster. A delicate ragtime melody is plucked out while Guthrie recounts the true tale of his friends, their home in a church, his attempts to help remove trash, his subsequent arrest and trial for littering, and how that ultimately caused him to not be drafted. It’s an epic meditation on the bizarre nature of bureaucracy, the lack of cohesion in intellect in such services and maybe, just maybe the simple power of unmitigated freedom of choice. If you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and stop what you’re doing and listen to it right now. It still rings out powerfully 50 years later, and can bring a solemn concert hall to joyful singalong.
From there, he played “When a Soldier Makes it Home” (that dissected the horrors of war regardless of the nation fighting it), “I Hear You Sing Again” (contextualized with how Guthrie’s legendary father Woody Guthrie first learned music from his mother singing to him), and “City of New Orleans” (complete with the story of how Steve Goodman originally asked him to give it to Johnny Cash). The show ended powerfully, Guthrie explaining that on his very first performance in Los Angeles he stayed with family friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Elliott, a massive rodeo fan, took Guthrie to a local rodeo in Malibu. While there, Guthrie saw a woman so beautiful he could think of nothing else. He recounted how the next morning he wrote “Highway in the Wind” thinking of her. A few years later, he met her in person, at none other than the still-standing LA institution The Troubadour, where she worked as head cashier. Her name was Jackie Hyde. They married and stayed married for 43 years until her death in 2012. In that time they had several kids and as many grandkids. While Guthrie played “Highway in the Wind” the video wall at the back of the venue showed a slideshow of their family stretching back to the beginning of their relationship all the way through the birth of their grandkids. It’s hard to judge such a thing statistically, but odds are, not a dry eye in the house.
The set ended lovingly on a pair of Woody Guthrie covers, “This Land is Your Land” and “My Peace.” The former time-honored anti-war staple that spoke to the unity and beauty of our fair country, writ large by his son here as an interconnected message of the whole planet’s unity, and the latter a soothing ball of white light, a warming promise of serenity for one and all. Guthrie led the event like the true elder statesman of folk that he is. A willful and happy participant in a long chain of sonic and oral tradition, one passing not only the musical traditions on, but also the philosophical defiance that has been the warrior soul of the masses. The real pursuit of happiness and the American way: a relentless stand for peace, unity and wisdom.