Review: Time traveller: Arlo Guthrie Elmwood Hall, Belfast

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Arlo Guthrie

Elmwood Hall, Belfast

Somewhat akin to the very concept (and, one imagines, coiffure) of Tom Bombadil creeping into and out of the narrative in Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings with little concession to any sense of time and place, and little effect on the plot, is a rock'n'roll's Anomaly with a capital A. He knows it, he thrives on it, he plays it to the gallery - and it's 100 per cent what the gallery want. This particular gallery was in the place the Ulster Orchestra rehearses in, and it was packed full of expectant nostalgists of every age.

But to bracket - Woodstock veteran, son of Woody, flag-waver for the rose-tinted ghost of free love and wry chronicler of a Thanksgiving Day littering incident 30 odd years ago - as a nostalgia act is way short of the mark. As you'd expect from a man with a snowy shock of hair, a harmonica harness round his neck and a tendency to say "man" rather more than one could reasonably get away with in contemporary life, Arlo is reliving the '60s on a professional basis, but he's living the '90s too. Somewhere in the second half of the show, when laughing heartily at every quip - and there can be few stand-ups who couldn't learn something from the guy - is beginning to hurt, we see little glimpses of the real man. Introducing a powerful new song, "Wake Up Dead" - an almost uplifting reflection on the processes of terminal illness - we learn that back home "when I'm not up here pretending to be someone" he visits hospices and runs a charity for the dying.

For those who perhaps only knew the hits - the dope-anthem "Coming Into Los Angeles", the celebratory "City Of New Orleans", the unique "Alice's Restaurant", all of which were delivered with gusto - it may have been surprising that someone so inextricably linked with an era that's long gone has a razor sharp take on modern life, but if Arlo ever stood for anything it was the idea that "folk music" meant songs by people, for people, about people; songs, he mused with irony but real affection, that might just change the world. His good heart is still burning and like a master of his calling, like the jester in Twelfth Night, he knows that the way to influence is not to moralise but to entertain, and every now and then to point out some piece of grief amongst the merriment. He spoke with genuine sincerity about playing in Belfast - "believe me, it's hard for me to find a place I haven't played before..." - and how he and his dad wore out a record long, long ago by a group of traditional singers from the city and how maybe some of that spirit had made its way into his own songs. God knows, Belfast in 1998 could certainly learn a lot from the well of humanity it glimpsed if only in passing from this fine old hippy on his travels.

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