Words by Caroline Schwarz; Photos by David P. Tracer
There’s nothing like an Arlo show. Whether it’s just him and his various instruments, or backed by some talented mix of friends and family, or like tonight, additionally backed by a giant screen for a multi-media production, it’s always like seeing an old friend with a few new tricks up his sleeve. I’ve grown up with Arlo’s music as much as anyone’s, being one of the 60’s icons that I first discovered by watching the Woodstock movie in the 80’s, one of those voices that aren’t your standard pretty voices that to me are the sweetest and best voices of all. Arlo and his voice grabbed me the instant I heard it and never let go; he can sing the hell out of a song like few others can.
He’s always one to make me laugh (and cry, but more on that later) and tonight the humor begins before he even hits the stage, with a viewing of the short Motorcycle Song Movie to kick things off. Yes, we are entertained first by a pickle riding a bike. Evidently misplaced in a box under a desk for 40 years (“You can see why,” Arlo quips later), the film is dusted off as the opening entertainment this tour. The band takes the stage toward the end of the movie and finishes the song and then, here comes Arlo, looking great, his halo of hair glowing atop an all-black (jeans, shirt and leather vest) outfit.
Arlo introduces the band straight off rather than waiting as is customary until near the end of the show, which I think is nice; he notes that they are all old friends and family. Among them, on the keyboard, is his son Abe, who has a great, mellow, sweet energy, reflected in the smile that’s on his face for the entire show. Arlo tells us there will be a lot of old songs tonight, and says they initially wanted to play a song off of every album but that would have them here ‘for days’, which I declare from my second row seat would be OK. Of all his songs the one that’s been going through my head since I woke up this morning is the next one played, Chilling of the Evening. A song of loneliness and hope, as human as it gets. Prove to me there’s a love still left in all of this emptiness around me – isn’t that what we are all asking for and seeking, in one way or another? Always a lot for us to do to keep believing. Darkest Hour is another old favorite and then we get the first nod to the folk tradition of playing other people’s songs, songs whose original authors may have been lost along the way, with St. James Infirmary. While Arlo will always be humorously self-deprecating about his playing and singing, this song showcases some down in the groove guitar chops.
This is the 50th Anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant Tour. It makes me feel young that I’m not quite there yet! I go to plenty of shows where I must count myself amongst the oldest in the crowd; it is nice tonight to feel among the youngest. I guess I’m getting a bit carried away by this thought when Arlo announces that he has one to do ‘on the off chance there are any young people here,’ and I brazenly think he might mean me. But it is in fact his children’s song, Ballad of Me and My Goose. OK, I’m not that young. But I do enjoy the song, complete with storybook illustrations on the screen and a twisted sense of humor of which Arlo is the master (spoiler alert: the goose gets cooked). “I know it’s sick,” he’ll say, “that’s why I like it!”
Arlo talks a lot about being old and forgetful (admitting that songs for this show were chosen in part by being the ones that he remembers writing), all with his affable wit, but I don’t think of him that way. He seems still like a kid to me, open and innocent and funny, our native son. Certainly he’s a link in a chain to many who are older or gone. Woody, of course. Cisco and Sonny and Lead Belly, too. We get songs from some of those guys tonight. From his pa we get versions of poems that others have put to music, like Janis Ian’s I Hear You Sing Again, and the closing song that is a shared hymn, My Peace, which Arlo himself put to music and brought to life. A Lead Belly song, complete with a telling of Arlo’s earliest memory, of tugging on Lead Belly’s pant leg, when he was two years old.
Others are here too, in story if not song. Ramblin’ Jack, who took him to the rodeo where he first saw his wife. Unlike at some other Arlo shows I’ve seen, Bob Dylan is not mentioned overtly this time, but undoubtedly included in the mention of singers who have been accused of mumbling. Wavy Gravy is here, first as a part of Woodstock remembrances and then a more recent encounter. The Woodstock tales about flying in with two cops in a helicopter, a surprise performance, and a hole in the floor of the stage are pretty priceless and show that even if his memory ain’t what it used to be, the details remembered or somehow conjured up are plenty for an evening of solid entertainment. Of course this is followed by a perfect Coming Into Los Angeles, sung and played as vibrantly as if written yesterday.
Count City of New Orleans among songs I’ll never tire of hearing; not Arlo’s own song but SO much his song. It’s got that sense of the iconic to hear and watch him sing it, his voice that trembles through the air at you and cuts to the core. He tells how, when he first heard Steve Goodman play it, Steve wanted to give the song to Johnny Cash. Having already done a few train songs, Johnny didn’t really want it, didn’t want to be pigeonholed into the ‘train song’ genre. Worked out OK for Arlo, I have to agree, and for us!
It’s Arlo’s wondrous openness more than anything that inevitably leads me to tears. It always takes me by surprise; we’ll be going along, and I’m laughing and listening and singing, and suddenly during a song like Highway in the Wind, made especially beautiful tonight by the preceding remembrances of his wife Jackie and the images of them on the screen, tears are streaming down my face. There’s something about him and the way he sings and tells stories that is so real and truthful, it’s like the whole entirety of life and death and being human, right there, and reflected back to me. It’s not some concocted message; it’s just who he is. He shares lessons about love and compassion, like how despite a world of differences he became close and lasting friends with Officer Obie (who actually played himself in the movie, as did the judge), and maybe that’s something to keep in mind and learn from. When we sing along on My Peace, and Alice’s Restaurant, maybe people who need it in various corners of the world really can feel the energy from the unison and the four part harmony.
Of course, we do get Alice’s Restaurant Massacree in full length story-telling glory, complete with a cruise through the pertinent parts of the movie on the screen behind. It’s all synced up to the song as Arlo sings it, so we see the images as they are sung. Little Arlo on the big screen – dumping the garbage over the cliff, jumping up and down yelling “Kill, Kill!”, flashing a peace sign with two ink-stained fingers ready for printing and sending off to Washington – looming above big Arlo on the stage. Same guy, a lifetime later. Both cute beyond words and sweet as can be… I thank you both, big Arlo and little Arlo, for a wonderful night, for a lifetime of songs and stories, for linking me to those who have gone before, and for whatever more may come in future nights of laughing and crying and feeling connected to the universe through the music you share and I am lucky to be here for.