Wednesday, March 2, 2011

1987: Arlo & Alice

Sometimes, having one big hit song can be a mixed blessing. Ask Arlo Guthrie. "Alice's Restaurant" may have paid his bills for years, but playing it every night is another matter entirely.

The affectionate audience that filled The Catalyst Monday night never missed it. They chuckled knowingly when he told of hearing his anti-draft epic reduced to mall Muzak. Everyone there knew Arlo Guthrie had other things to offer.

Guthrie has proven himself a clever songwriter and a capable interpreter of other people's tunes. Among his strengths are his whimsical sense of humor and his evident sincerity. Chief among his weaknesses is - let's face it - a tendency to ramble.

It was not unusual for Arlo to introduce a song with a monologue three or four times its length. Most of the time, he was hilarious - if he had eschewed folksinging he might have had a career as a standup comic - but occasionally Arlo went too far. One such point was a twelve-minute discourse on the hazards of hunting giant clams, complete with a demonstration of harpooning technique. This bit, which was long enough for the band to go backstage for refreshments, had more than one observer scratching their scalp. The song that followed was, inevitably, anti-clamactic.

But, as Guthrie noted, there was no time limit. And when he attended to the music, he delivered crisp renditions of old blues and country ballads; he sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden" sounding more like Dylan than Dylan himself. And he offered his own songs, too: "some of 'em, not all of 'em". Backed by his able band Shenandoah - Bob Williams on guitar, Dan Velika on bass, and Terry Hall on drums - Arlo gave an emphatic punch to "Coming into Los Angeles", his best known tune next to "Alice". Another fine song that he made famous, Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" was given a polished but perfunctory run-through. None of the instrumentalists were given a chance to stretch out. Still, this was a sit-down show; nobody came to dance.

Less excusable was the relegation of brother Joadie Guthrie to sideman status. After years of woodshedding, Joadie released a credible debut LP last year. Reportedly it took Joadie a long time to come to grips with the legacy of their father, Woodie Guthrie, a giant in American music. He could have used some encouragement from his more famous brother, like a song or two in the spotlight. Instead he sang harmony and played rhythm guitar.

If there was any rancor over this, it never surfaced - least of all during the cheerful romp through dad's "This Land is Your Land". In the obligatory mid-song monologue, Arlo told of learning his father's song at school, and how Woody taught him the verses "they don't put in school books".

If anyone missed "Alice's Restaurant", Arlo pointed out that this fall is "the 20th anniversary of that sucker" and promised to play it next time he's in town (complete with a new introduction, no doubt). It hardly mattered though - "Alice" may have been his ticket to fame, but Arlo proved he can please a crowd just fine without it.

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