Arlo Guthrie & Sarah Lee Guthrie @ the Chan Centre – April 21st, 2016.
Iconic ‘60s folk star Arlo Guthrie delighted a sold-out audience at UBC’s Chan Centre theatre as part of the Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour. A 1960s era song that strongly resonated with the anti-war movement, “Alice’s Restaurant” was also expanded into a feature film. The Guthrie’s performance was a delightful and poignant nostalgia trip for an audience eager to recollect the colourful spirit of the of ‘60s.
The evening’s performance was a joint family effort. Arlo’s youngest daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie played an opening set starting with an elegant and touching cover of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” Sarah Lee’s mention of her family’s friendship with Donovan was the first of the evening’s many entertaining personal stories. Sarah Lee playfully engaged with the spell-bound audience as she shared a memory of turning down an offer for a bedtime story by one of her father’s friends. The audience laughed when she identified the rejected story teller as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. It seems that a strong sense of humour runs in the family. Sarah Lee evoked the audience to join in on her grandfather’s “Go Waggaloo,” an enjoyable and silly singalong affair.
The backing band, which included Arlo’s son Abe Guthrie on piano/keyboard, played double duty for the evening. The backing band supporting both Guthrie sets with skillful clarity. When Sarah Lee completed her six song set, an onstage screen began an animated short set to the chord plucking of “the Motorcycle Song” depicting a helmeted cartoon pickle finding dramatic hardship with the law. The song carries a ridiculous spirit of humour that is without comparison. The audience cheered as Arlo approached the stage centre and acknowledged the backing video; “we found that film clip when we were cleaning out a desk and thought “what the hell are we going to do with this?”’
Just like back in the ‘60s, Mr. Guthrie’s hair still reaches his shoulders, only now it is coloured silver. His performance was confident, humorous and full of enthusiasm which is all the more admirable after over fifty years of playing. Arlo Guthrie ran through the folk standard “St. James Infirmary” before sharing a childhood memory of standing with his father and his good friend Lead Belly. The evening’s many artistic connections were difficult to fathom given the richness of their cultural references.
Arlo was rather talkative throughout the evening; he spent some minutes talking about his experience at the legendary Woodstock music festival in 1969. The theatre hung on each and every detail as Guthrie recalled how he was scheduled to play on the second day of the festival but was unexpectedly rushed into playing a set for hundreds of thousands of people when he was so drunk he could barely stand. The Woodstock experience, from Arlo’s perspective, was simply out of this world.
There was thunderous applause as Guthrie led his band into “Comin’ into Los Angeles” the composition so effectively immortalized on the Woodstock film and compilation album. Expanded into a full band arrangement, the song persists in its effect and still wins new fans.
Up next was the tour’s restless folk attack centre-point, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” which was shadowed by screened footage of the song’s film incarnation. The ability to write compelling songs about shared experiences is an extreme modern rarity; “most songs I hear nowadays are in the key of “me”’ commented Arlo in a facetious fashion. The humour and wit of his rambling, anti-authoritarian stomp remain bright and unique in form. Sarah Lee joined her father for a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land,” inlcuding “from Bonavista to Vancouver Island” from the Canadianized lyrical version popularized by the Travellers.
Half a century after the release of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the composition remains a musical benchmark of contemplation, spirit and critical thought. Guthrie’s artistic impression is comparable with any master songsmith. Arlo Guthrie has a profound ability to paint an alluring mental picture of the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene; his live performance is a rare and spectacular window into the soul of one of America’s most important cultural and musical movements. Arlo and Sarah Lee’s exquisite performance provided heartwarming proof that Guthrie family humanism is alive and well. Between the comical folk strengths, endearing personalities and mesmerizing acoustics, Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour composed an evening of timeless musical magic.