Fifty years ago this coming Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie and company take a truck load of garbage out of a friend’s house near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Finding the local dump closed for the holiday, they proceed to dump the garbage on top of some other garbage in a ravine on the side of the road.
The next morning Arlo gets a call from the local police chief, arrests soon follow, and the rest is music history.
Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant: 50th Anniversary Tour began less than two weeks ago, and Friday night he and his four-person band played to a full-house at Hylton Performing Arts Center’s magnificent Merchant’s Hall, in Manassas, Virginia.
Arlo Guthrie proves that good music, humorous storytelling, and heartfelt family and friends never grow old. As Arlo himself suggested: the song becomes bigger than itself and grows and grows and grows each time it is sung and each time it is heard.
The evening began with the strangest little film you will ever see. Rescued from a dusty box, probably from some attic somewhere, “The Motorcycle (I don’t want a pickle) Song” accompanied a bunch of clay-mation animated vegetables on a cross country motorcycle trip that ends with a pickle sailing over a cliff but being saved by landing on a police car.
Then Arlo Guthrie and his band entered. With Terry Hall on drums, Bobby Sweet on guitar and vocals, Darren Todd on bass, and Guthrie’s son Abe Guthrie, on keyboards, they took us back to the original counter-culture.
This was a time before America had a professional army or a Homeland Security Department, when the Vietnam War and the draft engaged an entire generation of young people in what it means to be citizens and fighting and possibly dying on foreign soil.
They took us back to a time when challenging authority and parents was a necessary step on the road to adulthood and music wasn’t a Spotify download but an experience that brought people together.
As “Alice’s Restaurant” clearly exemplifies, Arlo Guthrie is as much a master storyteller as he is a master songwriter, musician, and singer. The majority of the song’s 18 minutes is spoken word poetry framed by a sung verse. And in this anniversary tour the song is accompanied by black and white still images from the 1969 movie.
The result is an emotional rush, for an era, for a man, for a nation.
Then, when Arlo explains that the policeman in the 1969 film, Obie, was not a hired actor but the actual cop who had arrested him decades several years earlier, and that through the process of making the film they had overcome their initial distrust of one another and become friends, his hopes for “song” become clear.
For Arlo Guthrie music is a process, an experience for sharing, not the content of the lyrics as much as the intent behind them.
Later in the evening, when Arlo sang his father Woody Guthrie’s famous “This Land is Our Land”, he describes the elation that his mother, Marjorie Guthrie, experienced when she heard young people in China singing her husband’s iconic American song in the early 1980s as a tribute to their own love of country. The lyrics didn’t matter: all that mattered was the intent behind them.
Another multimedia moment happened near the end of the evening when Arlo sang, “Highway in the Wind,” a love to Jackie, his wife of 43 years who died recently from liver cancer. As Arlo sang, photographs of his wife and family — they raised four children together — flashed on the screen. The importance of family, friends, and community resonated throughout the hall.
Another emotionally moving moment in the concert took place during Arlo’s presentation of “When a Soldier Makes It Home.” Written in 1994, the song pays tribute to the pain and loneliness of both the American veterans of Vietnam and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan.
Halfway around the world tonight
In a strange and foreign land
A soldier packs his memories
As he leaves Afghanistan
And back home they don’t know too much
There’s just no way to tell
I guess you had to be there
For to know that war was hell
And there won’t be any victory parades
For those that’s coming back
They’ll fly them in at midnight
And unload the body sacks
And the living will be walking down
A long and lonely road
Because nobody seems to care these days
When a soldier makes it home
Ironically, even though we do not see protests against America’s current war in Afghanistan, neither does one see any public energy to end the longest war in American history; and with 22 suicides-a-day among veterans perhaps it would have been better if every US citizen acknowledged ownership of the war.
To be sure, most of the evening was spent on the up-beat. Between joyful renditions of his ever popular “The City of New Orleans” (by Steve Goodman) to the playfully whimsical children’s song, “Me and My Goose” to Arlo’s own story about his life backstage at Woodstock and, then, suddenly being asked to perform early and high as that jet liner in “Coming into Los Angeles” the audience rolled with good spirits.
And as the evening came to a close and the audience left the hall to the bitter chill outside, those good spirits left with us. Arlo final song, which was also one of the final lyrics that his father penned, was “My Peace.”
My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you
My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew
I give my peace to green and black and red and white and blue
My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you
My peace, my peace is all I’ve got and all I’ve ever known
My peace is worth a thousand times more than anything I own
I pass my peace around and about ‘cross hands of every hue;
I guess my peace is justa ‘bout all I’ve got to give to you
And with that the evening ended; and with that evening began.
Running time: 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant: 50th Anniversary Tour was a one-time event on Friday, February 6, 2015 at Hylton Performing Arts Center-10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For other events at the Center, call (703) 993-7550 or click here. For other dates for the 50th Anniversary Tour click here.