“Running Down the Road” Arlo Guthrie LIVE! at The Grunin Center
As we make our way through the parking lot towards Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts on Thursday, November 10, 2016, we spot two large tour buses parked behind the theater, a moment which increases our excitement for what lies ahead of us this evening. As we step inside the doors of the venue, we note that others must also share our view as the lobby is filled to capacity with enthusiastic fans here for a sold-out concert featuring one of American music’s favorite sons: Arlo Guthrie.
Like his famous father before him, Arlo Guthrie has made a career out of singing songs about social injustice. He was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1947 to Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American folksinger and songwriter, and Marjorie Guthrie, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He is best-known for his debut musical composition, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a satirical 18-minute talking blues in which he provides the details of his arrest as a teenager in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for illegally dumping garbage while on a college break. Another of his songs, “Massachusetts,” has been named the official folk song of the state where he has long resided. In addition to his work as a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, Guthrie has made several appearances as an actor. He is also the father of four children who, like himself and his father before him, have all gone on to careers in music.
On the stage at the Grunin Center, colored lights illuminate a textured backdrop which looks like a stone wall. The stage is also set with a variety of musical instruments including multiple acoustic guitars, a keyboard, a drum set, and two electric guitars.
Baby boomers are in their seats — some of them alongside their grown-up children — while others sit with younger offspring by their sides. Many in the audience are local residents, but it’s clear that some have not only traveled here to the Grunin Center from areas around New Jersey, but others have made the trip from places all up and down the Eastern seaboard including Guthrie’s home state of Massachusetts.
Heads nod appreciatively as Arlo Guthrie and his band take their places on the stage, the bright spotlight shining on Mr. Guthrie. As he opens with his original composition, 1969’s “My Front Pages,” blue lights illuminate the band. Swirling lights in pinwheel shapes are projected throughout the Grunin Center auditorium as Guthrie articulates, “Fate alone will guide you on and give you words to sing.”
His voice never sounding better, Guthrie, 69, and his band show they are a musical force to be reckoned with — an ensemble at the top of its game. Moving on to Bob Dylan’s brilliant 1965 composition, “Gates of Eden,” Arlo’s distinct voice warbles out the pure poetry of this classic folk song as his band members steadfastly accompany him while he sings, “Of war and peace the truth just twists/Its curfew gull just glides/Upon four-legged forest clouds/The cowboy angel rides.”
Following a folksy version of his song, “Ride ‘Til the Morning Comes,” Guthrie announces to the audience, “It’s fun to sing old songs! I haven’t done ‘Gates of Eden’ in decades.”
Going on to add, “folksingers like my dad knew all the old songs and would record them,” Guthrie performs a gutsy yet swinging version of the classic American folk song, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The crowd loves it and responds with huge applause.
“I love New Orleans,” exclaims Guthrie. Recalling the time he visited Lazarus House, a place in New Orleans where AIDS patients are sent for care, Guthrie tells the story about man named Jack Daniels who told his nurse one of his dying wishes.
“I’ve always wanted to meet Arlo Guthrie,” the man revealed, at which point the nurse found Arlo and introduced the two.
“‘Lady, you’re good!’ said the man,” recalls Arlo, as he launches into his next song, 1966’s “Wake Up Dead.”
“In May of this year,” continues Guthrie, “we set out to do the ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ 50th Anniversary Tour,” prompting him to lament just before embarking on it, “Do I really have to learn that whole freakin’ thing?”
For this current tour, however, Guthrie introduces the next number as “one of my songs my kids thought I should know.” On this pretty country tune, “Ocean Crossing,” Arlo plays the piano as he sings, “All these winds blowin’ on me/Blowing in the nighttime lonely/Blew on over the ocean to you/Blew my words away,” pinwheels swirling to the solid beat.
Congratulating Bob Dylan on his recent Nobel Prize, Guthrie tells the story about a time in the early 1970s when he played a club in Tucson, Arizona, on the same night Dylan was performing in a local concert. A reporter asked Guthrie, “If Bob Dylan is playing the same night as you, why would people want to come hear you?” Guthrie responded by snapping back, “If they want to hear old Bob Dylan tunes, they should come see me,” after which he suddenly came to the realization, “I had to learn more Bob Dylan songs.” At this point, he performs a majestic version of Dylan’s 1964 classic, “When the Ship Comes In.”
After introducing his band — Steve Ide on guitar, Carole Ide on vocals, Terry “a la Berry” Hall on drums, and his son, Abe Guthrie, on keyboards — Arlo tells the story behind his current tour.
“We didn’t used to name tours,” he explains, “but now that times have changed, we needed a plan to tell folks what we were gonna be doing.” Since the promoters of this current tour decided to use an old photo of Arlo riding Mike Nesmith’s motorcyle from his 1969 album, Running Down The Road, they decided to use that name for the tour.
Performing a dynamic version of the title song from that album, “Running Down the Road,” Guthrie and his band rock out — his son, Abe, expertly supporting Guthrie’s vocals on keyboards — as the lights blink and swirl to the music.
According to Guthrie, “1969 was a good year,” explaining, “I bought a farm and got married, and the Alice’s Restaurant movie came out.” Going on to add, “I also played Woodstock,” Guthrie tells the story about a recent chance meeting with Woodstock Master of Ceremonies Wavy Gravy, wryly revealing to the audience, “We tried to reminisce, but we couldn’t remember anything.”
Performing a tune he played at Woodstock, Arlo launches into a spine-tingling version of “Coming Into Los Angeles,” proving what an expert he is at capturing the hearts of his audience with his effortless renditions of classic folk-rock — not to mention the great stories he spins between the songs — all to the cheers of the admiring crowd.
After a short intermission, Guthrie and the band make their way back to the stage, Arlo exclaiming, “You’re still here!” to enthusiastic audience response.
Starting things off with Arlo’s beautiful original composition, “In Times Like These,” Guthrie sings, “In times like these when night surrounds me/And I am weary and my heart is worn/When the songs they’re singing don’t mean nothin’/Just cheap refrains play on and on.” With this performance, Arlo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Guthrie name is still synonomous with quality in terms of classic American folk music.
Guthrie explains, “I’m a guy who loves words, but every once in awhile, you don’t need them.” At this point he performs an instrumental piece in the Hawaiian slat key guitar tradition using a “secret family tuning” he learned in the ‘90s working as an actor on a television show filmed in Hawaii.
Next, performing what he terms “an old song for old friends,” Guthrie plays a moving piece called “When a Soldier Makes it Home.” At the outset, Arlo’s harmonica playing sets the stage for this modern folk anthem, but throughout, the impressive percussive talents of drummer Terry “a la Berry” Hall provide the piece with the solid rhythmic backbone it requires.
Picking up his 12-string guitar, strumming it, and exclaiming to his expert lead guitarist, Steve Ide, “Hey, Steve! Thanks for tuning all these strings — this guitar is a pain in the butt,” the audience can just barely hear Steve as he jokingly mumbles off-microphone, “Yeah, all twelve of ‘em.”
Revealing to the audience, “In 1965, I was studying to be a forester” when he first heard this next song, Guthrie performs a world-class version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Including all four of Dylan’s original verses, Guthrie’s lead vocal entrances the crowd while the jingle-jangle of the tambourine keeps time with the strumming guitars.
Back at the piano again, Guthrie tells the audience, “In 1970, I was at a club in Chicago doing five shows a night when an unknown songwriter came up to me and asked me to listen to his songs.” Agreeing to hear them for the length of time it “takes to drink a beer,” the songwriter dazzled Guthrie with a song he had composed about a train.
After Arlo admitted he liked the tune, the songwriter begged him to “give that one to Johnny Cash for me,” but “Johnny didn’t like it,” explains Guthrie. As a result, in 1972, he went on to record Steve Goodman’s song himself. At this point, Arlo and the band deliver an “up-close-and-personal” version of “City of New Orleans,” the audience hanging on to every note, particularly each time Guthrie vocalizes the song’s famous chorus singing, “Good morning, America. How are you?/Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son.”
“We have one more for you tonight,” Guthrie informs the crowd, which reacts with huge applause. “Dad couldn’t write music,” explains Arlo smiling, “so he wrote the lyrics to tunes he ‘stole.’ And here’s one Dad wrote the lyrics to — and I put a tune to.”
With this, Guthrie performs an instant folk classic entitled “My Peace” and immediately has the entire audience singing along with him to his famous father’s lyrics: “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.”
Following a standing ovation from the packed house, Guthrie and the band return to the stage for an encore. When an audience member in the front shouts out a request for a specific tune, Guthrie stops the song he was about to play stating, “Anybody can get up here singing songs they know.” Instead, he goes on to perform a completely unrehearsed version of his 1972 composition, “Shackles and Chains,” the entire band improvising along, to the audience’s sheer delight.
Following another standing ovation —with smiles on their faces as they exit the theater — fans from this sold-out show react to the captivating program they’ve just experienced.
Ken, from Toms River, characterizes the evening as “classic Arlo,” filled with “great music” and “great stories.”
Also weighing in is a family from Mays Landing which includes a father, Danny Sr., and his two sons, Danny Jr. and Dominick.
“He’s a fantastic guitar player; it’s great to see him still touring,” says dad Danny, Sr.
“I love how he plays all the different instruments,” notes son Danny, Jr.
“I like how he does stories between the songs,” adds son Dominick, going on to explain, “They give meaning to the songs… and they’re funny!”
As we exit the theater and make our way back through the Grunin Center parking lot, we take one last look back behind the theater to see Guthrie and his entourage climbing the steps of their revved-up tour buses, ready to travel to parts known and unknown.
And with so many of Guthrie’s exquisitely crafted and performed classics ringing in our ears, like Arlo, soon, we also find ourselves happily “Running Down the Road.”
For more information on Arlo Guthrie, please go to www.arlo.net. To learn more about future performances at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center of the Arts — including Home Free on November 20 and 21, 2016, Roseanne Cash & John Leventhal on April 6, 2017, and Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years on April 22, 2017— please check out www.grunincenter.org.