Article and Photos By Paul Mann
Arlo Guthrie returned to Santa Barbara’s historic Lobero theater to play a sold-out concert on Tuesday, March 19th. The iconic singer-songwriter, most famous for his anti-war protest anthem, Alice’s Restaurant, celebrated that song’s 50th anniversary two years ago, with a concert that was one of many that he has played at the Lobero. This year’s concert celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant movie and featured three distinctive sets of music. The show was a musical evolution of the Woody Guthrie dynasty, one of Americas greatest protest folk singers and Arlo’s father. Two of Arlo’s children also joined the show
This most recent concert by Arlo began with a long lost animated video of one of his earliest and most popular tunes, The Motorcycle Song. As the video came to a close Guthrie took the stage with a four-piece backing band that featured his son, Abe on keyboards. The septuagenarian singer, with the same long scraggy locks that he sported in the ’60s, all be it silver hair now, immediately launched into the same Motorcycle Song that had just shown on the video. The first set featured seven songs spanning Guthrie’s career, and the band was washed in a beautiful lighting display backed by an ever-changing multimedia presentation. The video featured old clips of the Guthrie heritage as well as beautiful graphics adding an extra dimension to the performance. The first set included several covers including, Ukulele Lady inspired by Guthrie’s friendship with Hawaiian slack key guitar veterans. He also covered Gypsy Davy one of his father’s tunes and a Bob Dylan song Gates of Eden.
As always, Arlo spent much of the concert telling stories much like a traveling minstrel. He told a story before he launched into the Dylan tune about when he landed in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1980s on the same day as Dylan. Just as he descended from the airplane onto the tarmac, a reporter put a mic in his face and shouted, “Arlo Guthrie, you are doing a concert here tomorrow night. Do you know that Bob Dylan is scheduled to do a concert here the same night as you?” Arlo did not know; the reporter continues, “My question is, ‘Why should anyone go and see you?’” Arlo didn’t miss a beat: “Well, if you want to hear some good old Bob Dylan songs, I guess you’ll have to come to my show!” At the time Dylan was into his Christian gospel period and not performing his old songs much to the disappointment of many of his fans attending his concerts. To Arlo’s surprise, he was quoted in the local paper the next morning which he had meant as a joke. Now he was nervous because he didn’t plan on playing any Dylan songs. So he locked himself into his room with a Bob Dylan songbook and began to learn some of the songs he promised to do in Arizona.
After the seven-song opening set, Arlo introduced his daughter Sarah Lee to the stage, and she took over fronting the band as Arlo retired backstage. Her eight-song set was compelling featuring songs that she wrote as children’s songs at the request of the Smithsonian, a song for her mother who passed away five years ago due to liver cancer, and a song that she wrote featuring lyrics written by her grandfather Woody that were never recorded. Much like her father and grandfather, Sarah showed that she was a master storyteller as well as an accomplished musician. She told a riveting tale of how she wrote a song for her mom Jackie. Her song was inspired by something her daughter said on board a plane trip during a tour with her husband musician Johnny Irion. She looked up and said to Sarah Lee, “Do you see Nana up there?” looking into the night. “What do you mean? Honey” Sarah Lee replied, and her young daughter said, “She’s an angel.” Playing along, Sarah Lee went on, “Oh, that’s a nice thing to say, honey.” “What do you mean, mom?” “She’s really up there.” Skeptical Sarah Lee played along, “What is she doing up there?” “Mom she’s turning into a star.” From this imaginary conversation, Sarah wrote “A Circle of Souls,” a haunting song from the perspective of her departed mother.
Sarah ended her set with a cover of the classic folk tune “A Satisfied Mind” which has been covered by countless Americana artists. The tune was co-written by Texas fiddle player Joe Herman “Red” Hayes. He wrote the song with songwriter Jack Rhodes. Hayes died onstage while touring in England in 1973. Arlo returned to the stage in the middle of the song playing the second set of keyboards. The band then took a break.
After the intermission, a short film began on the screen featuring clips from the Alices Restaurant movie. As the film continued, Arlo returned to play the 18-minute classic in its entirety with a few updates. It is hard to imagine how many times the feisty singer has repeated the song. Nevertheless, the master storyteller seemed to breathe new life into the song even in its infinite retelling. Arlo and the band followed with the hit song from his original Woodstock appearance in 1969, “Coming Into Los Angeles.” Guthrie mentioned that he was returning to the original site to play a concert this summer on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. That show will also feature bands The Doobie Brothers and Santana. The final set of five songs also included Arlo’s biggest hit “City of New Orleans” and a cover of the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land Is Your Land.” The show ended with a standing ovation and an encore of another Woody tune “My Peace.” It was an incredible night of historical Americana, featuring the tunes of one of folk music’s greatest dynasties, the Guthries.