Most scions of famous performers experience difficulties living in the shadow of their celebrated parents, particularly if they follow the same trade. Not so Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary Woody of that ilk, a colossal figure bestriding American folk culture and the composer of such standards as "This Land Is Your Land". Long before the biopic based on Woody's autobiography, Bound for Glory, reached the big screen, Arlo had already seen his more modest narrative "Alice's Restaurant" turned into a major motion picture by the director Arthur Penn, fresh from his success with Bonnie and Clyde.
"Alice's Restaurant" was essentially a simple song expanded into a half-hour semi-spoken track by Arlo's lengthy, freewheeling anecdote about his hippie chums and their attempts to beat the Vietnam draft, an early example of the narrative gift that makes him such an entertaining performer. Striding on stage clutching a blond six-string guitar and a cobalt-blue 12-string, his harmonica holder already in place round his neck, Arlo looks every inch the ageing counterculture dude in his faded jeans, black shirt and leather waistcoat, with his flowing white mane tied loosely back, and he wastes no time in winning us over with his wit. This tour, he explains, was prompted by seeing all his old contemporaries such as The Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young doing reunion tours, and how he'd like to follow suit. Hence, he proclaims, "The Arlo Guthrie Solo Reunion Tour," then a brief, perfect pause before the pay-off: "Together at last!"
He hasn't always been this together, of course. A warmly welcomed run through "Comin' into Los Angeles", his contribution to the Woodstock soundtrack, is preceded by his sketchy recollections of the actual event, and followed by an amusing account of how, decades later, he was good-naturedly accosted by a young Secret Service agent in an airport, who quoted Arlo's own dope-smuggling song back to him: "Arlo Guthrie? Are you bringin' in a couple of keys?!"Later, he recounts how his mother insisted that on his first solo teenage trip to LA, he had to stay with his father's old travelling companion Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who promptly fixed him up with his first tab of acid, a transaction that went as follows:
"What is it?"
"Don't worry, it'll wear off."
Most of Guthrie's set comprises covers of songs learnt from his father's record collection, written by performers who would often be hanging around the house, such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and the folk genius Leadbelly – his first memory, aged about two, he says, is of this towering black man. He sings Leadbelly's "Alabama Bound", does a raggy, folk-blues version of "Green Rocky Road", takes Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" at a sprightly gait, and points out the parallels with today's repo culture in lines from his father's outlaw ballad "Pretty Boy Floyd": "Some will rob you with a six gun/ Some with a fountain pen/ But I never knew an outlaw who would take a family's home."
His own songs are less celebrated, but effective in their own way: "Motorcycle Song" has the childlike charm of his father's "Riding in My Car (Car Song)"; "Darkest Hour", a song he claims he dreamt someone singing one night, and woke up and wrote down, has the fatalist resilience of an old blues spiritual.
Songwriting, he explains, is rather like fishing. "There's a lot of sitting around, and, occasionally, one will swim by your line and take a bite. Just make sure you're not fishing downstream from Bob Dylan! I asked him once, 'Bob, couldn't you at least throw the little ones back?'"Reuse content