I hate hippies. But I love their music, and I especially love crazy old coots like Arlo Guthrie. When I heard that the folk music legend was going to grace Campbell Hall with his presence, I shouted my joys from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. And so did Guthrie himself, as Tuesday night was a night of celebration and nostalgia for Santa Barbara’s 600 or so ex-love children. Although I didn’t go to Woodstock, I kinda got the gist of it from Arlo.
With his touring band, Guthrie has finally proven that folk musicians beat ninny-nanny rockers into the ground. Gordon Titcomb played a mean pedal steel on ’60s trademarks such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” performing to the acclaim of a rapt crowd. Guthrie himself stuck mostly to his acoustic, while his warm voice and wise humor provided most of the night’s magic. On old hits like “City of New Orleans,” he showed wimpy new folkies like Wilco and Bright Eyes who was boss. Even Guthrie’s son ripped it up on the organ, despite the fact that he looked a little like Steve Zahn with a mullet. When they closed with “This Land is Your Land” and “My Peace,” I wanted to go to San Francisco; unfortunately, I didn’t have a flower in my hair.
This tour marked the 40th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Guthrie’s biggest hit. The song originally premiered at the famed Newport Folk Festival, and was even made into a film (directed by Arthur Penn of “Bonnie and Clyde” fame). For much of the audience, though, this was one of the disappointing moments of the night. As a monologue on the military draft and authority, the song still bears a weighty relevance. But Arlo and his band seemed to rush through it, with all the half-spent enthusiasm of Las Vegas showmen. Guthrie repeatedly joked about the song’s length – rightfully so, as it clocks in at over 20 minutes. His lack of passion showed, and the lyrics came off as dated and uninspired. Hopefully, the audience was too high to notice.
As openers, the Mammals were a little too rock to be called folk, and a little too folk to be dubbed rock. They definitely have the heritage – singer Tao Rodriguez-Seeger is Pete Seeger’s grandson – but the songs didn’t hit the mark, often sounding a little over-earnest. When Titcomb came out for a surprise appearance, however, the quintet brightened up with a worn-and-torn folk wisdom well beyond their years. Despite its flaws, by the show’s close I still felt a need to raise a glass in toast to Seeger, Guthrie and their lineage of folk hippie troubadours.