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In a pop music market where size is everything and obscurity means irrelevance, Arlo Guthrie--as one would expect from a subversive, pot-smoking smart-ass--breaks the rule. Nobody listens to protest folk anymore and if anyone does, it's for the kick of nostalgia rather than ideology. Arlo Guthrie is, indeed, obscure now: a figure more of recent history than of present radio play. But he knows it. He knows it, he reacts to it, and he second-guesses the embarrassment that might come from being long past one's prime. He mocks his own obscurity with a comedic sense sharper than that of any kid who's up on the charts today.
Arlo was born in 1947 to folk legend Woody Guthrie and dancer Marjorie Mazia Guthrie of the Martha Graham company. Arlo emerged from his father's shadow with his debut of Alice's Restaurant Massacre at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Although he would take a number of tacks in the years to follow, Arlo defined his essential sensibility with this loquacious, sardonic, mock-shaggy dog approach to song writing. In 1969 the album Alice's Restaurant was made into a movie in which Guthrie starred as himself. In the 27 years since, he has released album after album, moonlighted on a short lived TV series, started his own record company, written literature for children, raised a family, and--quite remarkably--kept his classic corpus of folk songs under constant revision.
Unlike the Bob Dylans and Eric Claptons of the industry who market "unplugged" re-recordings of obsolete songs, Guthrie updates his editorial banter perennially. Songs which originally lampooned and criticized the horror and stupidity of the Vietnam War have accumulated, over the years, addenda about Watergate, the Carter Administration, global warming, NAFTA, politically correct children's books, the brainless television industry and the astonishing post-mortem Beatles reunion, as well as any number of other current events.
Guthrie is as much performer as pure musician: he talks as much as he sings. His shows have all the character of an evening on his porch, and most of his songs are interrupted in the middle by spoken anecdotes, speculations, or quandaries. Sometimes he stops playing just to talk out an idea. Guthrie's colloquial idiom and sense of aphoristic wisdom are, perhaps, of the Prairie Home Companion school, but his repertoire is not without the socially conscious ire of a draft-dodger. Guthrie is a drawling American peacenik with teeth.
Despite his unremitting sense of comic timing, Guthrie's show has its share of heart-felt--bordering on saccharine--moments. While his primary voice is one of cheerful sarcasm, he does stoop to write the kind of wistful and syrupy stuff into which American folk music has deteriorated. Guthrie's newer songs attempt poetic appraisals of the human condition--rather than satiric ones--which pale before the nutty genius of his older work. And when Guthrie, in his words, "sings pretty" instead of hokey and talky, he sounds a lot like Bob Dylan. But if this is a comparison which a listener naturally would extend to the lyrics, it's a decidedly unfortunate one for Guthrie.
But again, Guthrie himself anticipates such comparison. "Song-writing's just kinda like catching fish--you sit there and pull them out as they go by--though I think Bob Dylan's up stream from me somewhere."
Guthrie makes a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Boston each year to give a concert. Last year he played Sanders Theater, this year he visited the Berklee Performance Center. Thanksgiving is, of course, Guthrie's holiday, for it's the day upon which the events of Alice's Restaurant take place. While Christmas reaps the benefit of It's A Wonderful Life, and everybody reads Ulysses on Bloomsday, Thanksgiving is a holiday in need of some tradition that the culture industry can market. Why not Arlo Guthrie? The war in Vietnam may well be long past, but we're all getting older. With the same wit he used so well in civic protest, Guthrie demonstrates how to fade into obscurity while inviting no pity. If you missed him this year--and if you want to get old without getting stupid--mark next year's calendar now.
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