Arlo Guthrie returning to Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
Trust a folksinger to hit life’s rough-and-tumble tone with enough humor and entertaining, feel-good groove to make a person smile and yearn for immortality.
“My dad used to say, ‘Life is hard enough. You’re lucky to just get out of it alive,’ ” says Arlo Guthrie.
The son of American singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie is heralded in his own right for multi-instrumental talent and the relevancy of songs written beginning in the 1960s and continuing to yesterday. Guthrie, 69, brings decades of sageness and song April 13 to Livermore’s Bankhead Theater.
Inarguably best known for the 20-minute, more spoken-than-sung “Alice’s Restaurant” and his rendition of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” Guthrie’s family legacy extends into the next generation and keeps the intrepid traveling musician on the road. The “Running Down the Road” tour will feature cuts from the late 1960’s and early 1970s: “Running Down The Road,” “Washington County,” “Ride,” three Bob Dylan covers, traditional American folksongs, and more. Joining Guthrie are longtime collaborators whom he says are either family or musicians and crew who feel “closer than family.”
Terry Ala Berry (drums), Steve Ide (guitar), Carol Ide (vocals/percussion), and Guthrie’s son, Abe Guthrie (keyboards) compose the band.
“I began working with Terry in 1975, Steve and Carol in 1978, and Abe when he got out of high school in the mid-80s. It’s not just being on stage, but we spend a lot of time together on the road, before and after the gigs,” he said.
The setlist, he says, follows a theme, but “spontaneity if we need it” is always an option. Decades of live performances provide atmosphere that changes according to the audience. “It’s never the same, even with the same songs,” he says. “My hope is that our folks will be able to take from the show whatever they need. Mostly it’s the feeling of being together with people that is good, healthy and nourishing — like something you eat.”
“Nourishing” wouldn’t make for a jazzy tour title, but it’s a good word for encapsulating Guthrie’s music and political activism. In 1983 he established his artistic control over contracts and recording with Rising Son Records, one the country’s first indie labels. The nonprofit Guthrie Foundation housed in the Guthrie Center at Old Trinity Church in Stockbridge, Mass. — where Alice Brock once lived and the origin of his hit song is found —provides cultural community services, enrichment and education.
Often asked to express his thoughts about where U.S. governance is headed, a nurturing mindset continues to inform his politics. “I don’t feel pressured (to identify by political party), but I remain a Bernie (Sanders) kind of guy,” he said. “I share my hopes and dreams for this nation and for people around the world all the time, but I don’t trust extremists in either direction. I like hanging out with regular people and generally stay away from professional politicians or professional protesters. I have a profession but I’m not a professional person.”
Although he’s never warmed up for a show, Guthrie avoids pre-show talking because it takes a toll. Which means “Alice’s Restaurant” pops out only occasionally — like last year, during a 50th anniversary tour for the tune. Not having to spend 20 minutes each night on the same song also allows for exploration of other music he enjoys.
Having balance, within the context of work, a setlist and life in general, he suggests means that taking time off is just as important as continually working. As his voice ages, Guthrie has shifted some songs to lower keys and says, “I”m not the lightning fast flat picker I was when I was a kid. I can’t even think that fast these days.”
But that doesn’t mean he has not embraced the digital era. Opportunities for people to create music in their homes, photos he can shoot and not develop on film and a host of other high-speed advantages have him singing the digital world’s praises. “It’s changed the way we do everything, especially how we communicate.”
Even so, he’s unlikely to dismiss a trait he considers American and one that has most influenced traditional folk, jazz, Blues and bluegrass music: the slow process of adding a “twist” to songs that have been passed from generation to generation. The non-plug-and-play results are unique, as are the people who write and listen to them. The digital world won’t change that fact.
“All that said (about music in the digital era), it’s the same old world.” he said. “You don’t need any new technology to be somebody.”