By Steve Klinger
In times like these, to borrow the title of an Arlo Guthrie song, it is refreshing to hear some authentic, roots-inspired music that has something to say about the world and doesn’t just follow a formula for pop-chart success or random electrified cacophony.
AMP Concerts, Albuquerque’s non-profit purveyor of world, folk and eclectic music, brought Arlo Guthrie to town on April 3, in the suitably historic and eclectic KiMo Theatre, for an evening titled Boys Night Out. This was Arlo’s third appearance in Albuquerque, after one solo and one with the Guthrie Family, a more fleshed-out ensemble including some of his daughters. The new tour features Arlo with son Abe on keyboard and Abe’s son Krishna on electric guitar, along with Arlo’s longtime buddy and drummer, Terry A La Berry.
Any way you slice it, the Guthrie legacy is strong, with frequent references to Arlo’s iconic father, Woody, who would have been 100 years old this year. Although this Brooklyn-born kid sometimes lays on the folksiness a little thick, it is fascinating to observe how this talented child of the ‘60s bridges the gap between Woody’s hard-hitting, no-frills social protest music, the hippie-tinged era of weed-laced counterculturalism and all that has come since.
Arlo weaves anecdotes from his childhood and youth seamlessly into a set list that ranges from his father’s songs (This Land is Your Land, Deportees) to his own early hits (Motorcycle Song, Highway in the Wind, and a fragment of his breakthrough epic, Alice’s Restaurant) to more contemporary tunes he’s penned or likes to cover. The band is very tight, with Arlo’s guitar and keyboard complemented but never overpowered. Abe is full of riffs and trills ranging from honky-tonk piano to Al Kooper-style organ, and Krishna and Terry ramp it up just enough to rock out without sending the baby boomer crowd running for the earplugs.
I’ve always found it ironic how Arlo, born in 1947, hit the folk scene a few years after Dylan, who famously got his start trying to sound and write like Woody. With a similar voice and taste, Arlo wound up sounding more like Dylan than like his father. (Then there’s the influence of Rambin’ Jack Elliott, another Woody wannabe who lived in the Guthrie home for a couple of years, but let’s not go there.) And now, as Dylan’s voice has deserted him almost entirely, Arlo sounds more like Dylan than Dylan. This is reflected in some great tunes as well, including Darkest Hour, which the band performed early in the concert. With an enigmatic heroine bedecked in jewels and perfume, a power-hungry family and an obligatory metaphoric tower, this haunting song is both opaque and evocative, and seems channeled from a ‘70s Dylan album. The moving When A Soldier Makes it Home (describing the reception of returning Vietnam-era GIs) packs a still-resonant political punch, but the melody is a dead ringer for Dylan’s My Back Pages.
Guthrie’s politics aren’t a major component of his shows (though Alice’s Restaurant launched his career with a satiric indictment of conformity, stupidity and the Vietnam-era draft), but he scattered a few telltale musical and anecdotal gems. In introducing Deportees, his father’s poignant retelling of the plane wreck at Los Gatos that killed dozens of unnamed Mexican migrant workers from the Bracero program, Arlo notes that some songs remain timely for decades, in this case over 60 years. That’s because our immigration policy hasn’t changed a lot in the interim, he pointed out, adding, “It’s too bad the world still sucks.”
When he talked about his father’s widely loved anthem, This Land is Your Land, and current grassroots movements he drew loud applause after saying, “I won’t be satisfied till the whole world’s occupied.”
Arlo closed the show with a song about peace, written by Woody, encouraging the audience to join in on the refrain, “My peace is all I’ve got that I can give.”
Arlo and his generation-spanning band gave us not only a message for peace but the musical language to summon and proliferate it. Not bad for a folksy kid from Brooklyn.
To view the schedule of upcoming concerts from AMP Concerts, including Buffy St. Marie in August, go to http://www.ampconcerts.org