Fifty years later, audiences can still get anything they want – but Alice is still not part of the package.
Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert with Arlo Guthrie played to a packed house Wednesday evening at The Music Center at Strathmore. The room vibrated with energy and enthusiasm. The crowd of mostly older boomers, some accompanied by adult children or teen aged grandchildren, clapped, cheered, gave standing ovations and sang along to the familiar songs.
A folk music legend, Arlo Guthrie at 68 with a thick shock of pure white hair, is not as lanky as he was at 18 but still had plenty of energy – and the incredible coordination required to simultaneously play a harmonica and finger a 12-string acoustic guitar.
In a year that seems to be filling up with 50th Anniversary tours, this one is special. It marks a turning point in the lives of the older Baby Boomers. Very few of those now in their late 60s and early 70s were actually Hippies, though many imitated elements of the lifestyle. Fewer still questioned why some young men got drafted and others, through accident, or family influence, did not.
As Thanksgiving loomed a little over 50 years ago, the teenaged Arlo and a pal, helped a friend dispose of a half ton of garbage that had piled up at the old Trinity Church in Housatonic, Massachusetts she’d converted to a home and banquet hall. What happened next formed the cornerstone of his epic song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” in 1967, and the 1969 movie “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Arlo Guthrie was the star of this concert, but the ghosts of his father, folksinger Woodie Guthrie; Arlo’s late wife, the stunning Jackie Hyde, who passed away October 14, 2012, and those of folksingers Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Rambling Jack Elliott, and Woodstock announcer Wavy Gravy, were all present.
The staging, lighting and multimedia presentations were a dynamic production by 44 Designs, Inc. of Nashville.
Early on, the stage lighting picked up tendrils of smoke machine puffs. Decades ago, those puffs of smoke might have eminated entirely from the audience. Times change.
The lights sometimes alternated with cutout abstract figures projected on the ceiling or back walls of the theater. The company also was involved in the production of the rear screen videos that played throughout the show. One clip, a claymation film of “The Motorcycle Song” had actually, Arlo said, been created 40 years earlier. It was then dropped in a box and promptly forgotten until someone discovered it recently, dusted it off and digitized it.
The audience was also treated to a montage of clips from the Alice’s Restaurant film.
This was not just a half-century reminiscence by a sole singer, it was a family effort.
At the top of the show, the five musicians filed onstage.
One was a winsome woman in a sleeveless cocoa brown jersey dress. It was one of Arlo’s three daughters, Sarah Lee Guthrie, 37, mother of two of his seven grandchildren.
She explained Arlo’s voice had gotten strained during the tour and he asked her to come open the show for him. A professional musician in her own right – she tours with her husband Johnny Irion – she performed Donovan Leitch’s “Catch the Wind” while playing a large acoustic guitar. She joked her father’s “50th Anniversary Tour” had so many concert dates, it would take three years to do them all.
Her voice was a knockout. Beautiful and crystal clear, it soared over the audience.
From her own album, produced by the Smithsonian’s Folkways division, she sang “Go Waggaloo.” In just a few minutes, Sarah Lee and the band members who joined her onstage made the cavernous cold space seem small, warm and intimate.
Joining her onstage was Bobby Sweet (guitar, violin, and vocals), Terry Hall (drums), Darren Todd (bass guitar), and her only brother Abe Guthrie (keyboards).
Sarah Lee also played one song on a keyboard – which was later used by her dad.
With the band she played the haunting Phil Ochs song, “When I’m Gone,” followed by her own song “Circle of Souls.”
The claymation video of “The Motorcycle Song” signaled Arlo’s entrance. Dressed, like the band members, all in black, his white hair formed a halo.
Arlo joked about people who, hearing he’s touring, will say “I thought that guy was dead.”
He smirked. “I’m workin’ on it.” Arlo joked about forgetting things as he ages and having to relearn some of his old songs.
Then, dispelling that, he ripped into a Cisco Houston song, “Gambler’s Blues.” Houston had been a close associate of Woodie Guthrie.
As illustrations from what appeared to be a children’s book flashed on the screen, Arlo sang what he called a children’s song – “Me and My Goose.”
“I know it’s sick,” he cackled. “That’s why I like it.” That was followed by a Leadbelly ditty, “Pigmeat.” He finished the first set with “Coming into Los Angeles.”
The second set included the long, delightful “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – about 20 minutes.
During Arlo’s side-splitting narrative he revealed that he and arresting officer William Obanhein, who portrayed himself in the film, initially had an adversarial relationship. They later became good friends. Several others, including the blind judge, also played themselves.
Everyone that is except Alice.
The film began to roll when Arlo received a call from the Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn in 1968. “I live in Stockbridge,” Penn told Arlo. “I know these people.”
Members of the audience wept as Arlo described the first time he ever saw his future wife – and was instantly smitten. They wouldn’t meet again for a few years.
He continued by performing “I Hear You Sing Again” a Woody Guthrie cover, “City of New Orleans” a Steve Goodman cover with Arlo on the keyboard, “and the final rarely heard stanza of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Sarah Lee Guthrie.
As a side note, watching the band members was akin to viewing a ballet. Slightly outside the limelight, they worked and blended beautifully, poignantly together.
For the encore – a few in the audience pantomimed holding up cigarette lighters – Arlo and Sarar Lee sang the Woody Guthrie song “My Peace.”
The tour hits The Birchmere in Alexandria the evening of February 5 and 6, 2016. It returns to the area on May 4th when Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis hosts Arlo & Company at the Key Auditorium at St. John’s College.
It’s definitely a “go see!” show.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour played on Wednesday, February 3, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD 20852. For tickets for future events at Strathmore, go to their calendar of events.