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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
ARLO GUTHRIE Dingwalls (formerly known as Lock 17,
formerly known as Dingwalls), London, August 8th 2006
There are three things you should know about Arlo Guthrie. Firstly he was the other-worldly (ie. mostly on another planet at the time), pretty-looking young boy who sang ‘Coming into Los Angeles’ at the Woodstock Festival. Secondly he’s one of the few artistes I can think of to have a film made of one of his songs (‘Alice’s Restaurant’).
Thirdly, he’s the guy who proved you could rhyme ‘pickle’ with ‘motorcycle’, something which he confessed tonight that in retrospect, he regretted (“but sometimes you can’t choose the songs you write” he complained, “they choose you. I mean, why couldn’t that one have gone to Bob Dylan?”). Oh yes, and fourthly, of course, he’s the son of the revered (and much in vogue) hobo folk legend Woody Guthrie, and along with his sister is at the hub of a veritable (albeit respectful and well-meaning) Guthrie family empire. It extends into performance (the Guthrie Family Legacy tour, featuring Arlo, son Abe, daughters Sarah and Cathy), archives and recordings (managed mostly by sister Nora who’s been releasing ‘new’ Woody Guthrie lyrics from a massive archive to singers ‘round the world – including our favourite Comrade Billy Bragg) and a huge amount of charitable work. Did you know, for example, that the church that was at the heart of the story of Alice’s Restaurant was bought by Arlo, it’s now the Guthrie Center (sic), home of the Guthrie Foundation which amongst many other things raises funds for research into Huntingdon’s Disease, which killed his father (and quite possibly his grandmother)?
There’s a lot of Woody stuff in the course of the evening, but it’s nicely done, not overdone, and sits easily with the rather self-depreciating and matter-of-fact character that Guthrie (Arlo that is) casts over this quite intimate evening at Dingwalls (yes – it’s got its name back!) where the largely middle-aged, ex-hippy-turned-retired estate agent audience spend much of the evening squabbling over seats. The structure of the set is much the same as a solo show I saw in Dublin some years ago, held together by Guthrie’s apparently rambling narratives, with as many twists, turns, and byways as a ‘Green green rocky road’ which he sings about.
The recurring theme of the evening is song writing - “it’s just like fishing, you have to sit down and wait for one to come along – but just make sure you’re not downstream of Bob Dylan”. The first half ends with an increasingly animated story about hash and paranoia that leads inevitably into ‘Los Angeles’, and after an instrumental warm up (Guthrie is a much better musician that he gives himself credit for) the second gets under way with those familiar chords that used to be badly played at so many early seventies parties (“Sounds like you might have heard this before – I know I have”) that herald a word-perfect ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ (“one of the things I’ve learned about song writing over the years is to keep the new songs short …”)
There are plenty of funny stories about “my daddy”. We hear a clip from some recently discovered tapes of him yarning – soon to be released on a CD as ‘Woody wires’ – and the similarities to his son’s meanderings are remarkable. There are tales about Bob Dylan and a host of other sixties folksy folks, some despairing observations on the state of things today (“Well either my daddy’s songs have aged exceptionally well or the world still sucks…”) and politics (“I never ever imagined that Nixon could ever start to look good …”). If you haven’t guessed there are lots of jokes too, and lots of laughter.
And there are a few nicely played tunes (Gordon Titcomb is excellent on pedal steel guitar and mandolin), ‘St James’ Infirmary’, ‘In times like these’, Steve Goodman’s ‘Good morning America’ and ‘In my darkest hour’. But then at the end it all got a bit like Billy Bragg meets the Woodcraft Folk round the campfire as the audience sang and rocked their heads like nodding dogs to “daddy’s” ‘This land is your land’ and ‘My peace’. Hmmmm.
Never mind. Arlo is a thoroughly charming fellow, and whilst the sticky and cloying scent of nostalgia might be hanging heavily in the air, he remains an endearing reminder of the naive but caring optimism that thought it could change the world but didn’t, but which certainly changed rock and roll for ever, and which did (and in Guthrie’s case still does) make a difference. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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