I wasn’t really keeping track, but I’d wager that Arlo Guthrie spent as much time talking as he did singing during his Sunday night show at the Music Hall. This was fitting, of course, since Guthrie’s best known song, “Alice’s Restaurant”, consists of a couple of sung choruses wrapped around a spoken word retelling of the (so-called) Great Thanksgiving Massacree that went down in Stockbridge, Massachusetts some 32 Turkey Days ago. Arlo performed that golden holiday chestnut at the end of his first set, complete with the addenda from his 1995 album Alice’s Restaurant — The Massacree Revisited , which made the song even more subversive and even more hilarious and (of course) even more lengthy than the 18:20 original. But I don’t think you can get too much of “Alice”, although Arlo might disagree with me on that count.
Guthrie’s between-song story-telling was just as hilarious. We heard his poem, “Mooses Come Walking”, after learning how NAFTA had caused an increase in moose spottings around Western Massachusetts (where Guthrie lives). We heard about how the Beatles seemed to have it out for Arlo, releasing Sgt. Pepper on the same day he released the original Alice — then releasing the first of their Anthology disks on the same day the updated Alice was released! We got a full year’s worth of classic gut-bustin’ quotes: “If people walk away happy, then you’ve told ’em the truth”; “Anybody can get up here and finish a song” (after interrupting “Ukelele Lady” in mid-stream); “If this sounds like a James Taylor song, it’s ’cause he was sitting there when it was written — and I had the pen”. It’s been quite some time since I’ve laughed so hard at a performance that wasn’t billed as comedy. Come to think of it, though, it’s been quite some time since I’ve laughed so hard at a performance that was billed as comedy. Go figure.
On the musical front, Arlo played guitar and harmonica and keyboards (as usual) and received supportive accompaniment on keys from his son, Abe. The evening’s first set focused on older guitar-oriented material, so Abe — who sat with a Mona Lisa smile throughout the evening — was left to provide bass-lines and synth string filigree. The second set found the duo spot-lighting material from their recent album Mystic Journey, which allowed Abe to shine on material he was involved with, creatively. “When a Soldier Makes It Home”, “Doors to Heaven” and “Wake Up Dead” showed that the Guthrie skill at social commentary remained as strong as ever, while “Under Cover of Night” showed that Abe could hold his own with his dad: their linked voices were simply astonishing together (Abe has none of his dad’s nasal twang, possessing a clear bell-like tenor instead) and Abe’s propulsive keyboard work lifted Arlo’s deft finger-picked guitar figures into a dynamic new sonic plane.
It was ultimately magnificent and moving when the Guthries finally closed their second set with a singalong version of “This Land Is Your Land”, written by Arlo’s late father, Woody Guthrie. I, for one, am tacking “The Guthrie Family” onto the list of things for which I’m going to be thankful this holiday season, as I don’t think I could bear the thought of either a musical or a material world that didn’t ring with their wise and wonderful songs. Thanks, Arlo and thanks, Abe, for reminding me of that fact.