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Arlo Guthrie

The Duchess, York
Sunday 1 February 2009

Arlo Guthrie admits that the one question he is frequently asked wherever he goes and wherever he plays is 'what was it like at Woodstock?' to which he often has to reply with a series of half remembered memoirs and half elaborated upon mythologies. It probably doesn't surprise him that this is so often brought up in conversation, having been captured on film delivering somewhat embarrassing, yet highly quotable, Sixties oratories from the stage at Max Yasgur's farm in 1969. "Man there's supposed to be a million and a half people here by tonight, can you dig that? New York railway is closed.. man." Arlo may have been out by a million souls, but as is often said, if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there.

The Duchess in York tonight saw a gathering of people of all ages, some of whom may not remember the Sixties, but who were very definitely there, to those who were probably not even born a clear twenty years after Jimi Hendrix brought that particular historic festival (and the decade) to its conclusion. Some came along carrying their prized LP records under their arms in order for their hero to sign them, if they got a chance to meet him that is, and some of the younger punters came along, curious to see how this young hippie, who took to that stage at arguably the most legendary pop festival in history almost forty years ago, is getting along.

Of course Arlo Guthrie is also famous for being a direct descendent of the most important American folk singer in history. I think it would be twee to pour importance on that fact, just in terms of his genetic relationship to Woody, but having been a kid growing up in that environment, that would also include the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Rambling Jack Elliott to name but a few, is difficult to overlook and I imagine it would have had a considerable impact on a young impressionable 1950s schoolboy at the time.

Tonight the folk troubadour appeared as part of his 'Arlo Guthrie Solo Reunion Tour (Together at Last!), armed with both 12 string and 6 string guitars as well as the customary harmonica rack, and performed songs from a repertoire spanning over four decades. Kicking off with a song from his very first and most celebrated album 'Alice's Restaurant' from 1967, which inspired Bonnie and Clyde film director Arthur Penn to make a feature film out of this true story of the young Guthrie dodging the draft, living the hippie lifestyle and getting into a skirmish with the Law for littering. Chilling of the Evening brought back memories of that time and surprisingly little has changed over the years. Guthrie has the sort of youthful voice that doesn't seem to age and it has to be said that all the older songs were pretty much as fresh as they were when he first put them down on record in the Sixties.

Arlo Guthrie could quite easily have been just another Dylan clone to emerge from the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene of the mid Sixties, had he not developed his own unique raconteur spirit. Many of his songs are either prefaced with hilarious introductions, or he may randomly insert stories right in the middle of a song. Arlo still tends to be slightly embarrassed by the popularity of Motorcycle Song, a song he admits time and again that it was 'not the best song I ever wrote'. He joked that he was ashamed for the sake of the 'family history and all that', nevertheless, this offbeat tale of riding a motorbike whilst playing a guitar with tragic results for, of all things, a police car, remains an audience favourite.

What is generally overlooked whilst taking in Guthrie's irreverent humour, his hippie musings and offbeat tales, is his informed guitar playing. On blues standards such as St James Infirmary Blues, Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses and Key to the Highway we see a guitarist who has done his homework. Not only does he tackle various blues styles with impressive authenticity, he also gives us a taste of some pretty tasty slack key Hawaiian guitar playing, reminiscent of Ry Cooder's forays into this particular style during the Seventies.

Highlights of the set tonight included Steve Goodman's City of New Orleans, Arlo's own controversial "Coming in From Los Angeles" and a rather faithful reading of Pretty Boy Floyd, paying homage to his dad whilst observing that "the more laws you make, the more criminals you produce", one of Woody's more astute observations. All in all, a worthwhile reunion, man.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky