Arlo Guthrie, aging gracefully
Arlo spins true-life yarns, sings the old songs at a packed theater in South Milwaukee.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Ain’t that guy dead yet?’” Arlo Guthrie said to his audience last night.
Recalling a time he asked Pete Seeger to perform with him at Carnegie Hall, Seeger protested, “I’m giving up performing live. I can’t play the way I used to.” Guthrie responded, “Pete, look at our audience. They can’t hear the way they used to!”
True enough, Milwaukee’s hippie contingent swarmed the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center Friday night for a sellout performance. Arlo mentioned several times how much he liked the acoustics and intimacy of the venue.
For the past year, Arlo Guthrie has been on tour commemorating his father’s 100th birthday. Arlo sang many of Woody’s songs, presenting them in a new light, though not new enough for Arlo. In the deportation song, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” Arlo said, “On one hand, this song could have been written yesterday. On the other, it’s just too bad the world still sucks.”
Guthrie illustrated the timelessness of his father’s songs and showed their relevance for today’s audience with little effort. About “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a song about a farmer’s retaliation in the face of imminent foreclosure, Arlo had this to say: “If a farmer robs a bank, he goes to jail. However, if a bank robs a farmer…”
Arlo’s own songs are plenty relevant as well. 1996’s “When a Soldier Makes it Home,” about returning veterans of the Vietnam War, rings as true now for those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan:
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
“Folk singers were the ones who knew all the old songs,” Guthrie claimed. These songs didn’t really belong to anybody, but passed down to subsequent generations. He mentioned that Woody had “borrowed” the tunes for quite a few of his songs from traditional numbers. This was not for capital gain, rather for the good of the world.
Guthrie also had no qualms performing his well-known songs. Quite the contrary, he relished connecting them to a new story. He related “Coming Into Los Angeles” to a recent incident in which his wife was busted at a Connecticut airport. Though he didn’t play it (he merely played the intro repeatedly), he claimed he can play the main riff from “Alice’s Restaurant” while water-skiing, though he’s forgotten the actual song. “I’ll have to re-learn it for the 50th anniversary, if I don’t die first.”
One story starts at a small Chicago club. After finishing his set, Arlo is accosted by a young man who wants Arlo to hear a song he’d recently written. Arlo, tired and cranky, initially refused until the songwriter promised to buy him a beer. “I told him, ‘For as long as this beer lasts, I’ll listen to your song.'” The songwriter turned out to be the late, great Steve Goodman, and the song was “City Of New Orleans,” which became Arlo Guthrie’s biggest hit. “That was definitely the best beer I ever had.”
Returning again to Woody Guthrie’s songbook, told a story about how, in grade school, the students were singing his father’s song, “This Land Is Your Land.” Arlo had to admit that he didn’t know the song. Later, Woody taught Arlo the song, plus the obscure final verse:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
“I now felt armed and ready for school the next day,” said Arlo.
After a standing ovation, Guthrie closed the show with “My Peace,” the only sing-along of the evening. “I know people aren’t into the ‘Kumbaya’ thing these days,” said Guthrie. Maybe, he said, there’s a certain spirit that comes from sing-alongs, a certain spiritual unity that can be felt around the world. The crowd happily obliged.
Throughout the show, Guthrie held the crowd in the palm of his hand. A troubadour in the purest sense of the word, his songs and stories entertained and mesmerized.
Coming Sunday, May 12, to South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center: Guitarist Jesse Cook.