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Arlo Guthrie
American Express
River to River Festival
Battery Park
July 30, 2009

Written by John Proctor

Photographed by Susan Gurevich


All through July, the River to River concert series in Battery Park has been hosting acts in celebration of Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, bringing in such acts as the ubiquitous Richie Havens, John Kelly singing Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark (neither of which, interestingly, contain the haunting“Woodstock”), and the guy competing with Hank III for the richest American music pedigree, Arlo Guthrie.

Arlo Guthrie

Being a Woodstock anniversary show, the promoters started off Arlo’s gig by touting its environmental street cred. The show was powered entirely by biodiesel fuel, and the drink cups were made from 100% renewable plant material. They even told a quick anecdote from 15 years ago about asking Arlo to sing a quick jingo for Kraft Foods as it was sponsoring the show they were promoting; Arlo of course refused. Ranger Jim, who runs Battery Park, gave a historical summary of the park before the show while a guy in front of me told his own story of how Ranger Jim had to shoot President Reagan’s gimpy horse in the 80s (“You wanna make him mad, just go up to him and go, ‘Neighhhh’”).

Arlo Guthrie

After walking onto the stage, the first thing Arlo addressed was the persistent question of what he remembers about Woodstock: “I remember gettin’ there.” His memory proved more reliable as the night went on, as he told how he had to be helicoptered in since the traffic was backed up for miles, and the conversation between the two state troopers in the copter:

Cop #1 – “Lotta hippies down there.”

Cop #2 – “Yep.”

Cop #1 – Prob’ly doin’ lotsa illegal stuff.”

Cop #2 – “Yup.”

Cop #1 – “I ain’t goin’ down there. You?”

Cop #2 – “Nope.”

“That’s when I knew we was gonna have a good time,” Arlo said. He also recounted being so stoned that he couldn’t go onstage, to which the stage manager wearily responded, “Richie Havens been playin’ for hours now, we need somebody else!”

And of course an Arlo live show, perhaps owing to his father’s lineage, really is just as much about the stories as the songs. Sitting with his guitar in his lap, he kicked off a solid version of “St. James Infirmary” by talking about his relief work in New Orleans, where he only played two songs that were actually about New Orleans (I’m assuming “City of New Orleans” is the other, although technically I guess that’s about a train called the City of New Orleans), then went into an old Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee tune with a story about listening to his dad’s 78’s as a kid, cognizant of the fact that they were all by people who’d been to his house.

He then went into one of his most well-known songs by relating the experience of sitting and waiting for inspiration to hit, and a lucky day when it all just flowed out, getting it all down on some pieces of scrap paper, and being so excited he just had to record it as soon as possible, convinced this might be his magnum opus – “I don’t want a pickle/I just wanna ride in my motorsickle…I got stuck playin’that frickin’ song for 40 years!” After playing the song, he said writing it made him believe in instrumentals, and proceeded into one.

He told some great stories about perhaps his greatest mentor Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who brought the completely non-English “Guabi, Guabi” back from a visit to Africa which Arlo made into a minor hit in Europe, and perhaps his greatest friend Hoyt Axton, whose “Evangeline in Old Mexico” he then sang after finishing Guabi, Guabi.

The next couple ditties were a poem he wrote for his only book, a kind of creepy children’s song about mooses looking in looking in your window at night, then a medley of “Old Shep” and “Me and My Goose.”

He then transitioned to piano for a rousing singalong “City of New Orleans” and Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues,” then went back to his guitar. That’s about the time the Alice’s Restaurant chants started. He politely responded, “I’m just doin’ the ones I can remember,” and a couple offered him the words, which they’d printed out and brought with them. He finally responded with his best line of the night: “Can you imagine goin’ through life runnin’ through the same 20-minute Groundhog Day episode?”

He talked some more about his Katrina relief work before going into a song he wrote in response to it, then played a Walkin’ Blues update and a song called “Range of the Buffalo,” which was the almost exact same story and tune as Diamond Joe.

The night wound down with a great story about Woody going to California and getting a radio show that he had to work and work until they finally gave him a 20-minute slot – “That’d a been one song for me!” which got lot of chuckles from the Alice’s Restaurant crowd. He sang Woody’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and his own “Highway in the Wind” before leading a singalong finale of “This Land Is Your Land,” and I’m convinced even the Alice’s Restaurant folks left happy.

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