Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Dead: Live at Saratoga on Jerry Garcia's birthday

SARATOGA SPRINGS - They brought in The Dead and a crowd of 20,000 braved the driving nightmare to attend Sunday night's concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It was a day that would have been Jerry Garcia's 62nd birthday.

Performing in front of a blue lava screen framed with purple prisms and oozing groovy green bubbles, the band took turns passing around the microphone during the evening's two sets.
It took awhile before they hit their stride.
The first set, lit by natural light, was leaden by sonic oodling often resembling the sounds
of car trouble.

During the band's second set, beneath the cover of darkness, the crowd settled in to enjoy - from playful toddlers in tiny tie-dyed jammies to hordes of hippy chicks draped hip-to-heel
in rainbow-striped skirts, whirling to the music like broken ballerinas.

On stage, long-time percussionist Mickey Hart sat opposite drummer Bill Kreutzmann; the tall and lanky Phil Lesh plunked away on bass and Bob Weir, wearing cool summer shorts, accompanied on rhythm guitar and vocals. The quartet traces a historic line back to the group's 1960s era of 'happenings.'

Supplemented by guitarist Jimmy Herring and the tasteful keyboards of Jeff Chimenti, the band mixed old and new, delivering classic Dead cuts 'Uncle John's Band' and 'Saint Stephen.' They succumbed however, to the pungent bauble of trippy jams. Once the band's musical bread and butter, the extended jams were rendered obsolete by the 1980s, when Jerry Garcia was alive.

In 2004, the Dead horse has been beaten so long, its skeletal frame has disintegrated to ash, leaving nothing but dry, barren earth in its wake and the lonely sound of tumbleweeds blown by the wind. There was also the return of the dreaded drum solo, and long did it drone.

You got the impression - at that precise moment - that if Jerry Garcia made a special birthday return from the great beyond, the boredom would have surely killed him all over again. Although resident stoners among the faithful would probably disagree.

Revitalizing the set throughout was the appearance of Warren Haynes. Haynes performed double duty, appearing as a soloist in the evening's opening slot.

With The Dead, Haynes performed with the passionate urgency of a man possessed.
He growled through the vocals of Reverend Gary Davis dirge 'Death Don't Have No Mercy'
as if he was conjuring the old blues man himself.
And when given the opportunity to wail, wrung notes from his guitar like he was plucking solar fragments from the remnants of the blue moon hanging in the sky from the previous night. Jerry Garcia would have been proud.

Nearly 40 years down the road, for better or worse, The Dead refuse to die

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, Aug. 3, 2004

Warren Haynes: Interview with the guitarist hitching his post from the Grateful Dead to the Allmans

Guitarist Warren Haynes spent the month of June on tour with The Dead. Then he hooked up with the Allman Brothers Band for their tour in July. He will rejoin the Allmans for a stint late in August, then follow by hitting the road with his band Gov't Mule a month later.

Sunday night, the much in-demand performer will be re-hitching his six-string to The Dead's musical wagon at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where he will perform with the band on what would have been Jerry Garcia's 62nd birthday, as well as delivering an opening solo set in advance of the group's appearance.

And while the 44-year-old guitarist could be forgiven for going onstage some nights with his mind scrambled somewhere between "Whipping Post" and "Sugar Magnolia," he says that hasn't been the case. Mostly, anyway.

"It can be a little confusing at times," laughs Haynes, all these years later still carrying a raspy twang from a North Carolina upbringing. "But it's definitely different in terms of the (group's) fans. The Dead is part of a culture where people follow the band around the country. They go and see as many shows as possible," Haynes says. "The Allman Brothers and Gov't. Mule are a little like that - but not to that degree."

Haynes grew up at the foot of his older brother's turntable, listening to the sounds of Otis Redding and the Four Tops pouring out of the speakers. At the age of 12, he got his first guitar and fell hard for the blues-turned-rock of Eric Clapton. By the early 1980s, Haynes was touring with David Allan Coe and performing on solo projects by Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, which gained him access to the inner circle of the Allman Brothers Band.

When the group reformed in 1989, Haynes was asked to join. Keeping busy in the 1990s, Haynes also issued a solo album and founded the band Gov't Mule. In 2003, he began doing supplemental shows as a soloist, a task that was rewarding and a little frightening.

"In some ways, I've been doing it all my life, but I really just started doing solo acoustic (appearances) at Bonnaroo, which was inspirational and also a little bit intimidating," he says. The annual Bonnaroo, Tennessee music festival draws thousands from around the country for a three-day musical celebration in June. In 2003, it was the venue that Haynes chose to go it alone, performing with nothing but a guitar and his voice in front of 80,000 fans. After listening to recordings, he was sufficiently pleased with the results.

The newly released 16-track "Live at Bonnaroo" CD is the second solo release of Haynes' career. The music is guitar playing to acocmpany his soulful voice and tone more reminiscent of an "After the Goldrush"-era Neil Young meets REM, than the southern rocker/jam band phenom one might expect from Haynes. Wearing his musical versatility on his sleeve, Haynes delivers his rendition of songs by The Eagles, Otis Redding and Grateful Dead, as well as U2's "One" and Radiohead's intense "Lucky."

Haynes denies he has crossed some musical taboo in covering contemporary tunes by post-punk bands.

"To me, a great song is a great song," he says. "And the reaction has been nothing but positive. Some people enjoy hearing a song they haven't heard before. For others, they like hearing it stripped down to just guitar and vocals." Haynes' road meanwhile will continue to wind its way through North America, catching some tourist time when he can.

"It's nice if there are multiple nights (at the same venue), that's when you get a chance to explore a little," he says. His personal decision for picking favorite destinations however, usually comes down to one thing. "It's mostly based on how it sounds."

Onstage, Haynes is cognizant about giving people something different every time around. In fact, his band Gov't. Mule keeps a running log of every set list performed in each town so there is no duplication. The Dead have been changing it up, as well, performing two sets a night and with very few songs, if any, being repeated from one city to the next, mixing the 20-odd song set with everything from new jams to classic Dead and a handful of cover tunes like"8 Miles High," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

With the variety of musicians Haynes has performed with, there are some collaborations that will always remain a fantasy. "Miles Davis. Jimi Hendrix. Howlin' Wolf," replies Haynes in a heartbeat when asked which musicians he wished he could have played with. "Those are the big three." With the passing of each musical legend, it is up to musicians like Haynes to continue the legacy.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian and The Pink Sheet, Summer 2004

Dead keyboardist Grateful to be here

Keyboard player Jeff Chimenti came off the stage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre and walked directly into the Virginia Beach rain.

He had spent part of Tuesday morning going through final rehearsals before the "official" start of The Dead's Summer Getaway 2003 tour.

After a pair of mid-week performances in Virginia Beach and Maryland, the band heads north for tonight's appearance at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with support from Steve Winwood.

The rehearsals have been extensive, Chimenti says, "A lot of hours, a number of weeks. But I think things have been going real well. This is a great bunch of people, and there is a real good vibration, a great energy."

The band's most recent incarnation includes the seven-member ensemble that performed at the Pepsi Arena in November 2002 as The Other Ones.

Led by the four surviving core members of the Grateful Dead - Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir - the current Dead includes Chimenti, along with newer members Rob Barraco and Jimmy Herring.

Singer Joan Osborne - perhaps best known for performing the catchy 1995 hit "(What if God Was) One of Us" - has joined the band for its summer tour.

The group has also undergone a name change recently. In February - 71/2 years after the passing of Jerry Garcia - the band announced it was returning to more familiar territory.

"We have decided to keep the name 'Grateful Dead' retired in honor of Jerry's memory," the announcement read, in part. "(We will now) call ourselves: The Dead," the group stated before celebrating their rededication with a Valentine's Day concert in San Francisco.

Following months of rehearsals, The Dead performed at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee earlier this week. They opened with the song "Touch of Grey," and performed fan favorites "Friend of the Devil," "Dark Star" and "Sugar Magnolia." And while an extensive repertoire and long jam sessions might be part of the band's reputation, it's not all as spontaneous and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as it appears on the surface.

By the time the band walks onstage tonight at SPAC, they will be familiar with a running order of songs to be performed.

"There is a set list made up on the day of the show," Chimenti says. "Although there's always the chance of an occasional audible being called during the show. It's fun. It keeps you on your toes."

As keyboard players, Chimenti and Barraco will alternate instruments throughout the band's performance, switching between piano and organ, synthesizer and clavinet.

"Me and Robert (Barraco) have been playing together, working on stuff and feeling each other out," Chimenti says of their collaboration, even though the pair hail from different musical backgrounds.

A Grateful Dead fan, Barraco grew up on Long Island in the 1970s. Chimenti is a relative newcomer to the band's music, having spent time around the Bay Area as a jazz musician.

"I didn't grow up with the Grateful Dead, although it|wasn't that I chose not to," Chimenti says.

"I knew OF them, of course, but I was just involved in a different realm of music.
I was playing a lot of jazz and (involved) with people like Ernie Watts and Art Farmer and Pharoah Sanders. Now of course, I wish that I had known more about them back then and got to experience some of what was going on at the time."

While the adjustment from the jazz circuit to the land of The Dead was a smooth musical transition for Chimenti, the cultural phenomenon and loyalist fan base that has surrounded the band for more than 30 years is something that he has been happily adjusting to.

"My first experience was playing with (Bob Weir's band) Rat Dog in '97," Chimenti says. "From that point to today, in going all over the country and all around the world, the way people have appreciated the band through the years, and in their dedication, is pretty amazing."

With the rehearsals done, The Dead is looking forward to getting back onstage and in front of the fans again.

"The sound is real good. We're ready to just go out there and have some fun," Chimenti says.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, June 20, 2003

Friday, December 16, 2005

Melanie: Live at Caffe Lena, Christmastime

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- 'Twas the night before the night, before the night before Christmas, and Melanie Safka came to Caffè Lena bearing the gifts of her musical songbook.
A talented songwriter, she performed in the role of a holiday chanteuse.

She opened with a dark, bluesy rendition of 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town,' delivered stirring versions of
'Good King Wenceslas' and her self-penned Christmas lullaby, 'Tonight's the Kind of Night.'

Melanie as accompanied throughout by son Beau Jarred Schekeryk, who plucked his guitar as fast as lightning,
the electro-acoustical notes firing off like a mating between the flamenco guitar and the bouzouki, and channeling his six-string resonator into a chorus of thousands.

She invited song requests from the audience, and honored a number of them, performing her popular tune 'Beautiful People,' and offered a revamped version of 'Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),' accompanied by a quintet of area vocalists who referred to themselves as 'The Melan-oids.'

She also performed an extended version of 'Brand New Key' that bordered on the theatrical.
The tune that has been her biggest 'hit' also nearly wrecked her career, she explained in an onstage version that was graced by a charming stream of consciousness and tinterspersed with fragments of her vintage tunes 'Somebody Loves Me' and 'I Don't Eat Animals.'

If it was classic Melanie the capacity crowd was yearning for, it was most readily found in her newest material.

Strumming away with head tilted back and eyes brightly scaling the crowd, she belted out the harmonic melodies on the songs 'Make it Work for Me' and 'To Be the One,' from her new release, 'Paled by Dimmer Light.'

And shortly before closing down for the night, she raised the hackles of the room's intensity in the delivery of her post-9/11 song, '(Say a Little Prayer) 'Till They All Get Home,' as a large black-and-white image of Lena Spencer, looming on the caffè wall, appeared to look on, wrapping the foggy ghosts of Christmas
past together with the hope-filled dreamy ones in the future.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, Dec. 24, 2004

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Santana Live: Turns Saratoga into summer street party

SARATOGA SPRINGS - They were young and giddy and grooving in their hip-huggers while watching the video screens on the summer lawn.
They were corporate types, fixed in pavilion seats, who creased a new wrinkle or two into their starched white collars.

Carlos Santana came to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday night and inspired more than 9,000 fans to boogie down and to shake it up.

Santana and his 10-member ensemble performed a handful of classic gems - from the noisy opening of "Jingo" to the memory-inspiring "(I Ain't Got) Nobody to Depend On." But it was a pair of more recent tunes, "Foo Foo" and "Maria Maria," that stole the show and exhibited the man's musical relevance in a career that is in its fourth decade.
He was born on July 20, 1947, in Mexico, the son of a mariachi violinist, and a descendant of four generations of professional musicians. His first instrument was the violin.
By early 1968, Santana’s similarly named band was performing as an opening act on stages in San Francisco.
Shortly after Woodstock, in the summer of 1969, a self-titled debut was released and yielded the hit “Evil Ways.” A second record, “Abraxas,” followed and sold four million copies, buoyed by popular cover versions of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman.”

A lot has changed in the 30 years since Carlos Santana first appeared at SPAC in the summer of 1973, but the soaring guitar and maniacal, frenzied beats - due in no small part to master drummer Dennis Chambers - are a continual inspiration.

As Chambers kicked off the set behind a yellow Pearl kit atop the drum riser, Carlos Santana entered the stage wearing a pair of black-framed Aristotle Onassis-type glasses and a cool summer shirt with intricate patterns that |mimicked the zagging graphics of the stage design and backdrop.

Identical in lineup to the band that performed on the same stage last August, the group nonetheless performed a mostly inspired set graced with new tunes.

In the anthemic ballad "Victory is Won" - the first of a many from the most recent CD, "Shaman" - Carlos Santana used a bottleneck slide. The guitar screamed high above the fiery rhythms of the band, then oozed a soft and sensual spirituality that ebbed and flowed, like a heartbeat, throughout.

Particularly joyous was the raucous street party jamboree "Foo Foo," a stop-and-start frenzy that was like a colorful tornado ripping through the barren prairies, leaving a cool blossoming garden in its wake.

The best the evening offered was "Maria Maria," a song issued on Santana's 1999 multi-Grammy-winning release "Supernatural." Following a sultry flamenco lead-in, the song was hot and sassy, pure sweat delivered with a melting and intense sonic desire.

Opening act Angelique Kidjo, an energetic ball of fire from West Africa, led her seven-member ensemble with crowd sing-alongs, rapid-fire rhythms and tense ballads.

Kidjo joined Santana onstage for a pair of songs, including "Adouma," which she wrote and Santana recorded on "Shaman."

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, June 24, 2003.

Carlos Santana: Live on a night with the sky graced by comets

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Carlos Santana brought his 11-member entourage to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where he blessed the crowd beneath streaming comet fragments that creased the night in the northern sky high above the outdoor lawn.

Carlos Santana was born in Mexico 55 years ago, the son of a mariachi violinist. With the current incarnation of his namesake band, he performed a two-hour-plus show that mixed the old, the new, and a glimpse of the forthcoming.

Looking comfortable in a loose-fitting, all-black ensemble, Santana talked some, and sang little, but commanded center stage with his distinctive six-string style.

He occasionally stroked flamenco riffs from an acoustic guitar, but it is the wrenching of tortured notes from his electronic machine for which he has been most recognized in the past 30 years. And it was in this, with the accompaniment of his delightfully capable infectious groove ensemble, that Santana delivered the goods.

The crowd was treated to recent hits from the 1999 blockbuster “Supernatural,”
including the songs “Maria, Maria,” “Smooth,” and “Put Your Lights On.”
Classic riffs were embedded as well: Snippets from “Paint it Black” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were mixed in for those who listened closely, and verbal praise was delivered for musicians Miles Davis, Bob Marley and John Coltrane.

Santana’s guitar wailed smooth and introspective. His solos climbed, sang, and at times shrieked -- each like a short story, riddled with tension seeking the point of resolution -- finally and conclusively, hitting their target.
The band members shone individually as well. There were extended solos for drummer
Dennis Chambers and bassist Benny Rietveld - as well as a night-long showcase of the two main vocalists, Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, and keyboard player Chester Thompson.
A trio of percussionists hammered out the beat throughout - high on a drum riser, joined by a rhythm guitarist and a pair of horn players.

At times, when the show seemed to drag, the energy was quickly brought back with Latin-inspired poly-rhythms that seared and soared and set the mixed-age crowd to dancing. From the young to the old, no one was spared.

“You are the living dream,” Santana told the crowd. “All is one - beauty, elegance, dignity,
grace - we are all those things. There is so much anger on this planet, there is so much fear,”
he continued.
“To all those who have suffered abuse: I want you to look at yourself, to look at your face
in the mirror, and I want you to say ‘I am beautiful.’ I want you to say ‘I am pure.”‘

-- due to be released in mid-October -- is titled and will feature a cast of collaborators including Rob Thomas, Placido Domingo and P.O.D.
The show previewed a few tunes from his upcoming album , “Shaman.”
Most notable were the sharp staccato horns and pounding skins, rollicking maracas and joyful call-and-response of “Fu Fu,” and the snappy percussive driven “Aye, Aye, Aye” with a guitar that is pure and vintage Carlos.

The most powerful experience of the evening came at the very end with the combined sonic attack of “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” and the rattling rhythmic assault of “Oye Como Va,” as a dove of peace flew on the big screen overhead.

“For your family, for my family,” Santana spoke, hands clasped in front of his body, “angels all around us right now.”
Then he flashed a peace sign, bowed humbly to the audience and sped off like a comet in the night.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, Aug. 13, 2002

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Neil Young: Rockin' in the Free World on the 4th of July

by Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Neil Young came to SPAC on the Fourth of July and he brought the entire town of Greendale with him.

Strapping on a gold-top Les Paul, Young took the stage with his longtime band Crazy Horse. That's where all familiarity ended.

The prolific songwrite, rwhose best known works color most of the second half of the 20th
century, played few familiar tunes. Instead, he opted to stage a yet to be released 10 song rock opera (which he calls a "musical novel"), that celebrates the people and stories of a fictionalized town called Greendale.

The opus began pleasantly enough, with the country-rock tinged opener 'Falling From Above." It segued into a rumbling blues dirge, reminiscent of the Rolling Stones'
Midnight Rambler- esque
riff, called "Double E."

"We're gonna' play a few new songs for you tonight," Young announced to the faithful, many of whom seemed to come prepared for the experience. "But I haven't forgotten my old songs.
I'll play them later," Young assured.

Fans looking for a method to young's creative "madness" were clued in early on.
"Seems like that guy singing this song been doin' it for a long time," Young, the narrator, vocalized on one of the new tunes. "Is there anything he knows that he ain't said?"

Young's process of creatively re-inventing himself is a rare and admirable trait among pop performers.
I have had the opportunity to watch Young perform on two previous occassions. In the fall of 1978 at Madison Square Garden, Young debuted a then-unknown tune which resonated with the memorable refrain "Johnny Rotten! Johnny Rotten!" In the early 90s, at the RPI Fieldhouse in Troy, N.Y. Young shared the bill with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion, challenging himself to expand upon the soaring tones of his own electric guitar.

Then, as now, Young is full of surprises and, for the most part, the SPAC audience was willing to hear what their guitar hero had to say.

They waited him out and eventually hit paydirt with a seven song, explosive finale that delivered emotionally charged performances of "My My Hey Hey," "Powderfinger,"
"Like a Hurricane," and "Rockin' In The Free World."

For the opening 10 song "Greendale" sequence, the band riffed on blues and dropped some boogie on the crowd while actors mimed the words on stage. The dancers danced and a lard overhead video screen pushed the action forward, interacting at times with the emergence of mourning widows, a red booted Satan, bleak gray tombstones and the town police department.

The problem was in the new material's length.
Despite the ongoing activity in multiple areas of the stage, 90-plus minutes of new material is
a lot to ask of even the most devout Neil audience. Musically as well, many of the tunes were similar in tone, sounding like outtakes from Young's "Tonight's The Night." "Zuma," and
"On The Beach" era of work.

Still, there were high points. Young was at his best during his left-handed swipes at the political and corporate status quo. In one sequence, a giant red, white & blue billboard sarcastically proclaimed: "Clear Channel: Support Our War," was greeted by a rousing audience reaction.

In another, video images showed a Pentagon news conference and snippets of Tom Ridge & John Ashcroft, and as a CNN-like graphic flashed across the screen that read "Patriot Act," Young sang the lyric:
"There's no need to worry/There's no need to fuss/ Just go about your work/And leave the
driving to us."
As he continued "You can do your part/By watching others too," the lights inside the amphitheater glowed a blinding yellow, so we could all, supposedly, keep an eye on one another.

Other highlights included the touching solo acoustic version of a song called "Bandit" and the vintage Neil distorto licks that the guitarist played in the song "Grandpa's Interview."
During the grand finale, "Be the Rain," the stage filled with dozens of characters involved in the "Greendale" production.

As the hippie-fied rocker grew to an anthemic crescendo, Young choked the neck of his guitar with the sort of vintage ferocious intensity that has enthralled rock & roll fans for decades.

A brief respite brought Young and Crazy Horse back on stage together on an otherwise barren stage, burning through a seven song finale that peaked with the evening closer, "Rockin' in the Free World."

published in The Saratogian, July 6, 2003,

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

CSN: Live at Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The man looked like to be in his 50s.
He was wearing blue jeans, a neatly pressed shirt, and he was standing among 4,000
music fans inside the pavilion of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Just then, Crosby, Stills and Nash were about to take the stage.

This is weird,” he said to nobody in particular.
“What’s weird,” I asked him.
I don’t see anyone here I recognize. A lot of the people I used to hang
out with, they probably didn’t make it out of the ‘60s alive.”

Just then, Graham Nash walked to center stage. Flanked by band mates David
Crosby, Stephen Stills, Nash began strumming the lazy rhythms of the set
opener, “Carry On.”
When the man-who-recognized-no-one heard the distinctive chords flowing out Graham Nash's guitar, he turned, faced the stage, and watched the musicians performing together like an old family of friends.

In the gold and scarlet hues of the simple but effective lights, CSN performed two sets and a trio of encores in a set that lasted 2-1/2 hours long. More than half were from the trio’s 1969 self-titled debut and its follow-up “Déjà vu” after the three added Neil Young.

Once a call to action, the songs today, more that 30 years later, lend themselves more to a summer party, a gathering of friends and a celebration of existence for those who did make it out of the ‘60s.

Barefooted and dressed in black, Nash strummed and vocalized throughout, blowing harmonica on the song “Déjà vu,” and pounding they keyboards for the intense “Cathedral.” A group hug-fest broke out after the performance of “Our House.”

Crosby – looking every part the rock ‘n’ roll walrus – showcased a voice strong as it has ever been.
He added color to “Marrakesh Express” and “Immigration Man,” and harassed his 12-string guitar for the tune “Wooden Ships.”

Crosby’s acoustic fingers highlighted the songs “Lee Shore,” and “Guinnevere,” and was the most talkative of the three with his in-between song banter.

“We never play a song the same way twice,” he explained.
“It’s not because we’re jazz guys or anything – we just can’t remember the way we
played it before.”

Stills meanwhile, appeared to be going for a “Miami Vice” meets “Hawaii Five-O” look with a colorful top, over khaki shorts and brown loafers, proving that if his fashion sense left something to be desired, he is still one of rock’s great guitarists.

He strapped on a cherry red Flying V guitar and soared through “Military Madness,” belted a grovel-voiced “For What It’s Worth,’ and seared through songs “Dark Star” and “Southern Cross,” and delivered a chilling guitar duet with Crosby during an emotionally charged “Almost
Cut My Hair.”

A trio of encored included a version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the raucous hair-rising racket of “Woodstock” and the show-ending sing-a-long inspired by “Teach your Children,” which
sent the crowd filing out stopping momentarily to pause at the backstage area and get a glimpse of the funky, two-tone touring bus that had “Peacemaker” stenciled simply across its front, with its engine rumbling, ready to roll into another town.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
originally published in The Saratogian, Aug. 27, 2003.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Arlo Guthrie: Comes into Los Angeles

By Thomas Dimopoulos

It was a horrifying thought: Arlo Guthrie — humanitarian, world-traveled musician, and son of American folk hero Woody Guthrie — was stuck inside of a Los Angeles hotel room waiting for the phone to ring.

Guthrie had just landed stateside, returning from a successful Australian tour and spending a few days in southern California to shake off the jet lag before heading east for tonight's performance at the Albany State Museum.

Securing the name and phone number of Guthrie's hotel was easy enough.
When the switchboard operator answered the phone however, the guessing name game as to what pseudonym the musician was traveling under was proving to be a challenge. Traveling musicians always use aliases.

“Good morning and thank you for calling,” answered the voice from behind a hotel desk somewhere in southern California.
It was a friendly enough welcome although given the circumstances, you couldn’t help but think that an opening round of “Good Morning America, how are you?” might have made a more apropos greeting.

“How can I help you?” it asked.
Um, Officer Obie, please.” Obie seemed a reasonable guess for an alias;
Officer Obie being a character pulled from the Arlo Guthrie tune “Alice's Restaurant.”

“Sorry, we don't seem to have any Obie listed,” said the voice.
Hmm. Do you have a listing for Fasha the Dog perhaps?” Another name culled from the Guthrie songbook.

“Uh, afraid not,” said the voice. No problem. There was a whole list of possible names
the singer could be hiding under, each of them culled from any number of songs he has performed.
Uncle Jeff?”
“Uh, No.”
Utah Carroll?”
Victor Jara?”
How about Eli? Juan? Rosalita?”

It was only 9 a.m. in Los Angeles and you could sympathize with the growing weariness of the hotel clerk's voice, recognition of fatality that says ‘oh boy, this is just going to be one of those days.’

A sense of desperation finally delivered the magic phrase: “Arlo Guthrie, please?” And sure enough, seconds later Arlo is on the phone. All the gossip mongering about the pleasant, groovy and down to earth manner of the man is crystallized in the first few minutes. He even uses his real name.
Guthrie shares his happy road memories of Australia — “It's the third time I've been there and it's great” — as well as talking about how he is looking forward to tonight's appearance in conjunction with the “Spirit of Woodstock” exhibition in Albany.

“I think it’s a great idea for a series,” Guthrie says. "We’re looking forward to getting back to the east coast and we're looking forward to playing there, it should be great.”

Guthrie performed a handful of tunes at the 1969 Woodstock festival and also had one of the film’s most memorable lines. “Like I was rappin' to the fuzz, alright, can you dig it?” he says. “The New York State Thruway is closed man.”

He performed a set that included “Walking Down the Line” a version of “Amazing Grace” and the song “Coming into Los Angeles.” The song's line “Don’t touch my bags if you please/ Mr. Customs Man,” raises a chuckle from Guthrie to this day, when passing through airport security. The recognition of him is more as a songwriter than a young hippie kid who has got something to hide.

“I get in (to the airport) and they say — Oh, that’s the guy that did that song,” he laughs.
Guthrie spends most of his time on the road but makes his home in Massachusetts, in the town that spawned his most popular song, “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Alice, as the song says, “lived in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower.”
That site, the 19th century chapel of the Trinity Church, was founded in 1991 as the Guthrie Center, an interfaith church foundation providing a wide range of local and international services, outreach services and dedicated to raising awareness and funds for a cure for Huntington’s Disease— the degenerative disease that Arlo’s father Woody Guthrie suffered from until his passing in 1967.

Arlo's dad used his voice, guitar and unconquerable spirit that inspired awareness
and a culture of music throughout 20th century and in no small way inspired a legacy carried forward by everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco.

In 1940, the elder Guthrie sat down in a run-down Manhattan hotel room and wrote a protest song in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” To this day, the song “This Land is Your Land” is known to everyone from schoolchildren to grandparents all across the country. Even though the tune's most protesting lyrical verses are usually omitted from sing-a-long versions, Arlo still thinks the popularity of the tune is pretty amazing. He remembers learning it first hand nearly a half-century ago.

“It was back in 1950-something when my dad taught me the verses of the song,” he says. “And I think my dad would think it’s great how the song has become a part of the fabric of the country.”

Later this month, Guthrie will be heading to his dad’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma to take part in a three-day music festival celebration on the anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birthday
Arlo Guthrie's appearance at another three-day music festival in 1969 almost never took place due to the large crowds. Woodstock swelled to as many as 10 times the number of people originally anticipated.

“It was (scheduled as) a normal gig. We knew it was a big festival and we thought 50,000 people would be there, or something like that,” Guthrie says. “But the day we were going there, we nearly didn’t make it. On the radio they were saying that it was turning into a ‘historic event.’ In those days whenever you had large groups of people there was usually riots and confrontations. But that — it turned out just great,” says Guthrie, before getting on to his normal morning routine.

This includes getting some coffee and checking out the Message Board on the Web site, “I read them every morning. I know at least half of the people (personally),” Guthrie laughs.
Then he will make his way across the country where he can be found traveling, guitar in hand and with a song to sing. A stand-up guy, and with no need for an alias.

July 1, 2004