Why Arlo Guthrie at the Patchogue Theatre on 10 May 2008 was Nifty-Keen

He not only did "Alice's Restaurant," he also did "St. James Infirmary" (a song I've been collecting versions of lately), "Coming Into Los Angeles," "The Motorcycle Song" (with the verses), "City of New Orleans" (big shock), and "This Land is Your Land," among many others.

The show was at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, which is a two-hour drive from where I live. I had a very nice dinner at the Brick House Brewery with Peter and Kathleen David (best line of dinner was the latter to the former: "You just told Keith DeCandido that he's silly"). Then I went to the show, which was introduced by a member of the theatre's board of directors, who has a lot of fans in Patchogue. John Platt, a DJ from WFUV, then said a few words and introduced Arlo.

The audience was a broad range of people, but most were my age or older. It was also nice to be somewhere where I didn't have the longest hair among the men -- in fact, I wasn't even close...... *chuckle*

Arlo's performing by himself for this tour, which is the first time in a while he's toured alone. In recent times he's had members of his family playing with him, and a couple of years ago he toured with an orchestra (immortalized on the magnificent In Times Like These CD). But now he's on the so-called "Solo Reunion Tour, Together at Last." He came out with four guitars -- a bright blue one, a regular acoustic, a twelve-string, and a brown one that he specifically used for bluesy stuff and for "This Land..."

Here's the full song list:

"Shade of the Old Apple Tree" was one of only three songs I'd never heard before in any form. Turns out it's an old Ramblin' Jack Elliott song -- a silly variation on a song that dates back to 1905.

He introduced "St. James Infirmary" by talking about how he and a bunch of other folks went to New Orleans in early 2006 to help the musicians devastated by Katrina, and he figured he should play a New Orleans song, and that's one of the two he knows, he said.

There were stories all over the place. Some were familiar. For example, while the intro to "Coming Into Los Angeles" started with a discussion of travelling and airport security (including one of his accompanists, Gordon Titcomb, having his mandolin strings confiscated by TSA), it modulated into the story of the man who smelled the runway before they got dogs to do it (which can be heard on the Live at Sydney CD). He told the same story about meeting Steve Goodman before playing "City of New Orleans" that can be heard on both MORE Together in Concert and the Sydney CD.

But some were new, like the tale of his piano lessons as a kid, where he ignored the teacher's attempts to get him to learn Beethoven in favor of the ragtime records his father had in the basement. He used to take his Dad's 78s and play them at 33 1/3 speed (for those of you who don't know what that means, ask your parents), so he could make out the notes -- and added that he has no idea how people learn things from CDs.

"In Times Like These" is a song I'd only heard on the eponymous CD, and it turns out that he wrote it in the wake of Katrina, which is unsurprising, given the lyrics.

Introducing "The Motorcycle Song," he talked about songwriting, and how it's like fishing: you sit around a lot, and sometimes a song comes by. If you have a pen, you can catch it. (He also took some good-natured shots at Bob Dylan, including recommend that you not fish downstream from him.) He then talked about his own motorcycle, which he hasn't taken out in ages. He's on the road most of the time, and when he has been around, the weather's sucked. Then last summer he had some time off, and finally took the thing out, only to have his kids point out that the license plates had expired.

His wife, though, let him keep the motorcycle in the living room -- which is the sign of a keeper wife right there, he said -- and that led him to the story of another man who kept his bike in the living room, constantly working on it, tweaking it, trying to make it perfect. When he was done, he started it up right there in the living room, but the clutch wasn't open (or something -- I don't remember exactly, and I don't know shit from motorcycles) and the bike went out of control, with him holding the handlebars, zooming around the house, tearing it up, and crashing through the living room wall and out into the street. His wife called the paramedics, who took him to the hospital, and the wife, while waiting, cleaned up the house, including cleaning up all the oil-stained stuff in the living room, and dumped it in the toilet. The guy got home, arms in casts, tired and frustrated, and he went to the bathroom and lit a cigarette....

The same paramedics came to get him the second time, since now his ass was on fire in addition to everything else, and apparently the paramedics were laughing so hard they dropped him and broke something else.

"This song is for that guy," Arlo said, and then went into "The Motorcycle Song."

I was blown away by his rendition of "St. Louis Tickle." That ragtime instrumental can be heard on two live albums, One Night and Precious Friend, and it's focused on the piano and also includes full instrumentation. So I was very impressed to see him play it solo on the guitar. He explained that when he was a kid, he'd go to the Greenwich Village clubs and he saw Dave Van Ronk play, and was stunned to hear him play old piano ragtime songs on the guitar. He didn't know you could do that, and he swore he'd learn how to do that. He did so -- six months ago. *grin*

After "Coming Into Los Angeles," he talked about taking a flight he was taking, and there were two Secret Service agents in the same waiting area for the same flight. Arlo was getting nervous, especially when one of them started to walk over. "Are you Arlo Guthrie?" the agent asked, and Arlo nervously answered in the affirmative. The agent then asked, "Are you bringing in a couple of ki's?"

Turns out the agent was a fan, and they got all kinds of Secret Service pins and other cool stuff. "I guess times really have changed...."

The second set opened with much heavier stuff. "Alice's Restaurant" has, to coin a phrase, come around on the guitar again in terms of relevance with people getting reactivated for the 9000th time to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. He also made one entertaining addition, when describing the Group W bench: "There were all kindsa mean, nasty, ugly people there. Mother-rapers. Father-stabbers. Father-rapers. Senators. Congressmen." That got raucous applause. He also blamed his doing "Alice" on the 15-year-olds on MySpace who e-mail him saying they became fans of his six months ago and want to hear it.

On a much more poignant note, after doing "Alice," he talked about last summer. They were doing a free folk festival that's held in his father's home town every year, and their next gig was several days later in Peoria, Illinois. Since they had time, they drove up from Oklahoma and picked a hotel at random to stay in.

It turns out there was a Vietnam Veterans reunion in the same hotel, and they found out Arlo was staying there, and asked if he'd say a few words. Arlo then quoted Marilyn Monroe: "Nobody ever went wrong saying, 'What the hell.'" So he said, "Sure, what the hell."

There turned out to be some old friends there that he grew up with in Brooklyn, whom he hadn't seen for 50 years, and he did "Alice" for them and had a wonderful time. He was worried at first, but then he remembered that he sold more copies of Alice's Restaurant at PXs than at record stores.

Afterwards, he headed back to his room, and something was niggling at the back of his head, and he looked it up on the web: turns out that it was the 40th anniversary of the day he first performed "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1967. That, he said, was the best possible way to celebrate that particular anniversary.

He then went into "When a Soldier Makes it Home," a song he originally wrote around the time of the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and which he said on 1993's MORE Together in Concert was already out of date. Sadly, it too has come around on the guitar again, and has actually become more poignant since September 2001. After that was "In Times Like These," a Katrina song, and he then went to the piano saying he had depressed himself.

He did a ragtime song that he never named after that, after talking about his piano teacher (who is apparently still alive and planning to come to a show on this tour), and then did "City of New Orleans."

In the middle of "This Land is Your Land," he told the story of Joseph (the same Bible story that Andrew Lloyd Webber made into Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), including the bit where Joseph is looking for his brothers, who aren't where he thought they'd be, and some unnamed person points and says, "They're that way." When he catches up to them, the brothers send him to jail in Egypt. While there, he helps his cellmates with troubled dreams. One cellmate goes on to advise the Pharaoh and when the Pharaoh has bad dreams, Joseph is summoned, and he helps predict a drought and helps Egypt prepare for it. From Joseph derives Moses, and from Moses comes the whole line of people down to Jesus, and all that -- and it's all because of that one guy who said, "They went that way." This was by way of explaining that one person can make a difference....

The final song was called "My Peace." Apparently his father left a lot of lyrics that he never wrote music to, and Arlo's sister Nora has been taking these genuine Woody Guthrie lyrics and sending them to musicians all over the world. "My Peace" is one that Arlo created a melody for, and it's about how achieving your own personal peace -- the kind that makes dogs lick you and babies like you -- is the most important thing, and the bigger peace will take care of itself.

My only disappointment with the show: He didn't do "Gabriel's Highway Ballad #16 Blues," a song I went to the trouble of e-mailing Arlo with a request for him to do. Ah, well. It was a minor disappointment, all told.

The show was simply magnificent, all I could've hoped for, and more. If Arlo comes to your town, do yourself a favor and go see him. There's a schedule on his web site at Arlo.net.

[First posted in my LiveJournal on 11 May 2008.]

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