Arlo Guthrie at the Pitman Theater, Alverno College; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Friday; April 21, 2006
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
Arlo Guthrie has been forced to live his life in shadows. His famous father Woody Guthrie has been a touchstone for politicized folk music since the 1940s. Often best known for being the son of the man who wrote “This Land is Your Land,” Arlo has also lived in the intimidating shadow of the disease that killed his father, a hereditary neurological disorder with symptoms similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
In 1967 Arlo released his first album to enthusiasm unparalleled in his career since. The record was called “Alice’s Restaurant,” and contained a side-long account of his arrest for littering and its unexpected aftermath. The 18-minute work was not quite talking blues and not quite a folk song. It made his name famous but proved to be a millstone on the order of a band with one huge hit. In fact, to the dismay of some single-minded audience members, Guthrie refused to play the song for many years.
Time changes all things, and Arlo Guthrie now embraces the once-shunned celebrity of his epic – at least to a point. He has embarked on a 40th anniversary tour of Alice’s Restaurant, which he brought to Alverno College’s Pitman Theater on Friday. And while he performed the song, his almost academic rendering of “Alice” was not the high point of his two lengthy sets.
Instead, Guthrie offered songs of white-faced cattle and of various dreams, both darkly cryptic and patriotically inspirational. He performed a stirring rendition of “St. James Infirmary” as a tribute to New Orleans, and credited Bob Dylan’s influence with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Between the songs Guthrie was relaxed and engaging as he offered several warm accounts of his father, inviting the audience to see Woody Guthrie as a man and a father rather than as an icon.
The backing group included son Abe Guthrie on effectively subtle keyboards, and utility man Gordon Titcomb on steel guitar, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Arlo himself played some fine lead lines on both 12 and 6-string guitar, and piano for much of the second set, including “City of New Orleans.”
Credit must be given to a performer who can navigate both the legacy of a father’s life and death, and the lingering shadow of his “Alice” fame. There is little the man can do about any of these parts of his past. On Friday, Guthrie emerged from all shadows, personal and professional, by addressing them directly with humor and style. It was clear that he is comfortable with his past, and is willing to share its winding backroads with an appreciative audience.