2017-04-20 / On the Town
Guthrie channels dad, Dylan at T.O. gig
It’s hard to believe, but Woody Guthrie’s precocious, shaggy-haired son Arlo turns 70 in a few months. On April 9, Arlo Guthrie made an appearance at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks, returning to an area where he once lived briefly during his long career.
Guthrie has always been a more disciplined performer than his legendary father, who famously hoboed through a rootless life, seeing America by way of railroad cars, broken-down jalopies and even the thumb during the Great Depression.
The younger Guthrie’s career began as his father was dying in a New York hospital a half-century ago, a victim of the paralyzing and agonizing effects of Huntington’s disease.
Arlo Guthrie never contracted the hereditary disease and has enjoyed a long, successful career as a songwriter, performer and political activist.
Today, Guthrie sounds more like a younger Bob Dylan than he does Woody, a similarity that is no accident. Guthrie was heavily influenced by Dylan, and continues to perform his songs in the dry, twangy, speak-sing manner that made Dylan famous in the 1960s.
Guthrie, with his long mane of white hair highlighted like a halo by upstage backlights, followed his opening number, “My Front Pages,” with Dylan’s “Gates of Eden.”
Before singing “When the Ship Comes In,” from Dylan’s 1964 LP “The Times They Are AChangin’,” Guthrie wryly noted that when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize “the smartest guys in the world couldn’t find him.”
Guthrie was talkative in between songs, telling humorous stories from his life and musing about different subjects in the irreverent way that helped launch his career.
He talked about how the definition of what a folksinger is has changed.
“In my dad’s time,” he told the audience, “a folksinger was a guy who sang all the songs that everyone knew. Now a folksinger is someone who sings songs in the key of me.”
He also recalled his appearance on the first evening of the Woodstock festival in 1969, when he had to be flown to the stage in a helicopter with singer Richie Havens because the roads were jammed with tens of thousands of hippies.
Guthrie’s reputation as an activist arose because of his hit “Alice’s Restaurant,” a rambling story-song in which he related how he was convicted of littering in 1965, a conviction that led to his being declared ineligible to serve in the Vietnam War.
Although he did not perform “Restaurant,” his most famous song, he did sing his poignant composition “When a Soldier Makes It Home,” which soberly noted that there were no victory parades for soldiers returning from Vietnam and Afghanistan.
He also sang a song based on a poem by Adrian Mitchell about Victor Jara, a Chilean poet who was murdered during the Pinochet junta of 1973.
The sound of Guthrie’s band, which included his son Abe on keyboards, was chiefly country/ rock, but Guthrie occasionally delved into gentler acoustic sounds, such as the enchanting instrumental “Haleiwa Farewell,” written by Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Cyril Pahinui.
Songs from Guthrie’s father’s catalog were not forgotten; Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” is timely once again. The song is about Mexican migrant farmworkers who were killed in a 1948 plane crash yet their names were not published in the newspaper’s report of the accident.
Clearly the highlight of the show was when Arlo Guthrie sang his father’s most famous composition, the anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that, as Guthrie noted, was once considered subversive but today reflects a patriotic message of inclusion that he and many of his fans feel is being forgotten today. It received the loudest ovation of the night.