June 16, 2005

Walk Right In, It’s Around the Back

Tonight I went down to the Battery Park area for a free outdoor concert by Arlo Guthrie, the ‘60s relic best known for such classic anthems as “City of New Orleans,” “The Motorcycle Song (Significance of the Pickle),” and of course, the epic story-song “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The performance was billed as marking the 40th anniversary of the events of the song (though it was recorded two years later); while it really says something that such a seminal event of the counterculture happened 40 YEARS AGO, I’m a big fan of the song (from both old camp sing-alongs, and its annual Thanksgiving broadcast on KQ), so I was sure not to miss it.

At first I mistakenly showed up at the wrong part of the park, where I had seen Fountains of Wayne last summer; a band was indeed playing there, but considering that the crowd consisted entirely of people in business suits, I assumed (correctly) that it wasn’t the Arlo show. Later I found the right crowd, which was dressed much more predictably, although I did see one guy wearing a Bob Jones University t-shirt- presumably ironically, but you never know.

The 57-year-old Guthrie opened with “Alice’s Restaurant” and was sure to change a few lines to reflect these “very familiar times,” though somehow he got through the whole thing in 15 minutes, about 5 shorter than on the recorded version. Much of the crowd acted as though they hadn’t heard the song in 15 or 20 years, still laughing at “circles and arrows and a photograph on the back of each one” like they were hearing it for the first time. Then again, I could only think of my similar recent experience, which I'll be sure to mention if I ever get drafted.

Another highlight was when Arlo launched into a version of his father’s “This Land is Your Land,” stopping in the middle to give a 15-minute, spoken-word treatise on the biblical story of Joseph and his coat- “the best Dvar Torah ever,” Ben called it. At least, much better than the guy on the subway on the way back, who alternated between screaming about Jesus, and telling various people to “watch yo white ass.”

In conclusion, Arlo’s still an excellent performer- certainly better live at this point than, say, Dylan- although the drugs over the years have clearly taken their toll: after one song he exclaimed, “it’s great to hear these songs again!” (Why? They’re your songs! Haven’t you been “hearing” them for four decades?)

UPDATE: Here's Ben's version of the evening.

Posted by Stephen Silver at June 16, 2005 01:55 AM
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