Arlo Guthrie turned 66 on Wednesday night, but the capacity crowd at the Englert Theatre received the gifts. In a solo show, Guthrie paid tribute to his legendary father, Woody Guthrie, performing songs his father wrote as well as songs by the Woody’s contemporaries such as Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Arlo also performed several songs from his own career, which has earned him a substantial fan base of his own since his 1967 debut album.
The solo setting—he had four guitars and a keyboard onstage and a harmonica around his neck—emphasized Guthrie’s gifts as a singer and instrumentalist. His nasal-tinged voice was in fine form and his playing was excellent all evening. The stripped down versions of the songs he played also highlighted what fine songs they are, whether they were his dad’s, his own, or those written by others but associated with one of the Guthries (e.g. Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” which was a hit for Arlo).
Guthrie, as might be expected, has stories to tell—lots of stories. In fact, it would be reasonable to suggest that after intermission the ratio of talking to singing tipped a bit too much in the direction of talking. However, as his fans know, Arlo is a storyteller, and he tells stories in the time it takes to tell them (he did, after all, write “Alice’s Restaurant,” which he alluded to but did not perform, a song that clocks in at better than 18 minutes).
And what stories they are. His father is one of the most important figures in America’s musical history, and Arlo grew up around an amazing array of musicians and songwriters, and then became their peer in his own right. He is unassuming and folksy as he tells his tales, but he can help you feel the full weight of the musical history of which he is a central part.
That means that when Arlo Guthrie starts playing “This Land is Your Land,” perhaps his father’s most famous song, it resonates anew. When he stops to tell a lengthy story about the song’s reception and performance around the world, it seems wholly appropriate. And when he tells of learning the song from his dad in the backyard, complete with extra verses, it just might bring a tear to the eye. And when he performs one of those lesser known verses, it feels like we’re privy to something extraordinary—because we are.
For his encore, Guthrie performed one of the last songs his father wrote, a simple two verses that Arlo himself set to music since the original tune is lost to history. Guthrie had the audience sing along the second time through “My Peace,” and that felt like it made us a part of the history, too.