Review: Arlo Guthrie: The Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour
He flew us into Los “Angeleez”, then to the City of New Orleans, on to Stockbridge Massachusetts (where the Massacree occurred) and then to Woodstock. It was family night for Arlo and the Guthries, and the capacity crowd at the Michigan Theater loved every minute of music and stories.
I snagged a last-minute single ticket among the few left from everyone’s favorite online ticket marketer (who shall, like Voldemort, remain nameless), and headed up to balcony right for a seat at the rail with perfect sight lines to the stage. What a spectacular and rich venue the Michigan is. I secretly hoped that the mighty Barton organ would provide a processional as we were seated – it did not.
The evening began with Sarah Lee Guthrie who joined her dad’s tour a few weeks ago as an opener. Growing up in her father’s musical world (as Arlo did with his dad Woody) Sarah appeared on Arlo’s work as both a toddler and an adolescent, and has today established a solid singer-songwriter-storyteller reputation of her own since she began recording in 2001. She channeled her dad’s stories on stage, and her grand-dad’s lyrics and music to provide a delightful introduction to a Guthrie generational anthology that was told through the rest of the evening.
The three generations have all written songs especially for children, and Sarah has made a specialty of it in recent years. She delighted the crowd with a spirited sing-along "Go Waggaloo" from Woody’s catalog. She played lovely standards in her own style such as Tim Hardin’s "If I Were A Carpenter", followed with one of her grandfather’s most loved songs "I’ve Got to Know" and finished her portion of the evening with her own "Circle of Souls".
To be clear, Sarah can hold her own, on her own, in any roots, folk, or Americana venue. There’s no need for her to borrow from that legacy to make her performance powerful. She is proud to sing her heritage on stage, and you can see that same family pride in the face of Arlo’s son Abe as he leads the band with keyboard and provides supporting vocals. The rest of the band that supported Sarah and Arlo features drummer Terry Hall, guitarist and vocalist Bobby Sweet, and guitarist Darren Todd.
As Sarah left the stage, the ornately vaulted Michigan Theater did not brighten as it would for intermission. A large screen flickered to life at the rear of the stage as we heard the first chords of "The Motorcycle Song" accompanied by a stop-motion animated short created almost 40 years ago entitled No, No, Pickle. What a delightful way to bring out a vital and still funny-as-hell songwriter, Arlo Guthrie.
Displaying youthful energy and a slightly raw throat strained by touring – Arlo Guthrie hammered out a classics-studded evening of music and stories that kept the capacity crowd laughing and singing along all evening. He first measured the crowd’s age: “For those of you who heard about this concert and asked, ‘isn’t he dead?’… well, I’m workin’ on it.”
While prefacing a story about Woodstock, he quipped, “Well, I remember getting there…” and then told the story of his history-making appearance in front of “more people than I knew I would ever see again in my entire life” while in a significantly altered state of consciousness. It was just what we wanted to hear from an icon of the era, and he kept all generations in the audience enthralled with story and song.
Arlo Guthrie Set List – November 9, 2015 – Michigan Theater
1. The Motorcycle Song
2. Chilling of the Evening
3. St. James Infirmary (Joe Primrose)
4. Ballad of Me and My Goose
5. Pig Meat Blues (Leadbelly)
6. Coming Into Los Angeles
7. Alice's Restaurant Massacree
8. I Hear You Sing Again (Janis Ian)
9. City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)
10. Highway in the Wind
11. This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
12. My Peace (Woody Guthrie)
The crowd lit up for the most memorable tunes, including a rousing back-to-the-60s rendition of Coming into Los Angeles to close the first set. The story of the infamous “massacree” – the namesake of Guthrie’s 50th Anniversary Tour – top-lined the second set, and you could tell the audience had not gotten tired of the telling. Somehow, Arlo told the story as though for the first time – so that those listening for the first time would not be short-changed. “If I’d known the song would be so popular, I wouldn’t have made it so long.”
According to Arlo, Steve Goodman gave him a song he had just written, "City of New Orleans", to hand off to Johnny Cash. Arlo recounted that Johnny was concerned that one more train song might pigeon-hole him…to Arlo’s eternal benefit. The words to Arlo’s greatest ballad were on almost everyone’s lips in the audience. Mr. Guthrie also presented himself as an accomplished musician throughout the evening, brandishing a number of acoustic and electric guitars and a keyboard. Most enticing was the blue-to-black Rainsong 12-string acoustic as it jangled its carbon-fiber sound across the theater as if on its own dedicated speakers.
Arlo rolled up the evening with more of his own stuff like "Highway in the Wind", a lesser-known but no-less-special cut from his 1967 breakout album, Alice’s Restaurant. He included a sweet cover of Woody & Janis Ian’s "I Hear You Sing Again" as if he was singing of his own family, and then explained that he lost his wife of 43 years, Jackie, to cancer in 2012. Arlo may still be grieving, but remains wistfully positive on stage. He spoke of their meeting in 1968, and how Jackie knew she would marry Arlo the moment she saw him. You can see the result of their love on the stage with Arlo in Sarah and Abe.
The whole family took the stage for the Guthrie past patriarch’s masterpiece "This Land Is our Land", and Arlo spoke of the song: "as though in the multitudes of re-singing by so many millions of people, the song has now acquired its own spirit and weight in the universe. He bade us goodbye by passing his peace to us – My Peace – from he and his family to the audience".
Arlo and his family are an extraordinary example of the age-old practice of passing on passion and skills from one generation to another. They don’t just want to sing their father’s – and his father’s – songs. It’s not just good folk music or good money or good politics. They must sing them. It’s a family thing.
Many, many thanks to The Ark and to the Michigan Theater for bringing the Guthrie family back to Ann Arbor.
A very similar audio version of this great live event is available on Spotify. Check it out.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.