Arlo Guthrie's act wasderivative long before he ever stepped onstage. That's neither an insult nor a tribute—when you're the son of Woody Guthrie, the Mystical Folk-Singing Everyman, it's a matter of simple biology.
"With me and my family and music," Guthrie says, phoning from his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, "it's not just a legacy being preserved, but also actually carried on."
Being born starts the process of publicizing everybody's heredity, to one extent or another, and the young Arlo could never have denied the resemblance or avoided comparison to his father, no matter what he'd become. But once he picked up a guitar—and it's fair to say he had parents who were into music lessons—the fact of Guthrie's birth seemed to crystallize into the central theme of his destiny. By age 3, he was dancing and playing harmonica with legends ranging from Leadbelly to Pete Seeger.
"I did my first show in 1961, when I was 13," recalls Arlo, who will turn 53 in July. "Even if I had no skills or ability to begin with, by playing and performing long enough, it was inevitable that I'd develop some."
When Guthrie performs Friday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, backed by a band that includes two of his children, it will be nearly 40 years since that first gig. "Now I've got four kids and three grandkids, and they all love to go on the road," he says. "There are still lots of my dad's peers who show up at my shows, too, along with people who follow us around, la the Grateful Dead."
Maybe you're old enough to remember a time when Arlo Guthrie could team up with Pete Seeger to spend an evening singing folk songs and spinning stories and cooking up a little food for subversive thought, and the show would attract nearly enough people to fill the massive hillside of the Hollywood Bowl. That's how it was in 1972, when I was 16 and saw Guthrie and Seeger in the first concert I ever attended. My best friend and I drove up in my mom's 1964 Cadillac—and felt like total dorks when we realized we were the only two guys wearing high school letterman's jackets.
"Was that you?" Guthrie chuckles over the phone, almost 28 years later. "Yeah, I saw you out there. Well, yeah, sure, maybe I did."
Most people in the audience at the 756-seat Barclay will be hoping to rekindle similar memories, whether pining for an excerpt from "Alice's Restaurant" or renditions of "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "City of New Orleans" or revivals of his father's "This Land Is Your Land." Most of them will want to hear the familiar stories—the histories and the fantasies and the comedic combinations—that Guthrie tells in rambling deadpan with a voice that vibrates like a cheap speaker.
And Guthrie will give them what they want. Mostly. But he's also determined that living up to all this reputation and experiencing so much of life as legacy will not become de rigueur, offstage or on.
"Well, that's the art of it all, isn't it?" he asks. "When you get onstage, saying the same things over and over, year after year, decade after decade, the art is making it sound as if you are performing it for the first time."
For some people, of course, it will be the first time.
"What's been happening now, which is nice, is that more and more young people are coming who have never seen us before," says Guthrie. "The presence of the night-after-night fans forces me to keep changing the show, and I love them for it, but the new kids bring the real joy. There are a few things that survive what used to be called the 'generation gap,' and I seem to be one of them. I'm thrilled."
Guthrie describes performing with his children, Abe and Sarah, as one of the great surprises of his life.
"I thought my kids would be as distanced from me as I was from my own parents," he says. "I loved them, but there are very few things I could share with my parents, even though they were well-known and supposedly very cool. I had a life that my mom didn't get—and I didn't expect my dad to get it because he was hospitalized [with a 10-year battle with Huntington's disease, which killed him in 1967].
"I remember bringing home a recording of 'Alice's Restaurant,' when it was just a test press on acetate. I wanted to play it for my mom. She said, 'Put it on while I do the dishes.' I said, 'No, Mom, this is my record. It's a story. You've got to listen.' But she couldn't do it. She couldn't give it her full attention. She just had to be doing something. I still think about that. It was just one of those generational moments, where things were too different to bridge."
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Like his parents, however, Guthrie's music, philosophy and personal actions have been about building bridges to peace and tolerance. With his long silver hair, he looks like the poster burnout child for aging hippies. Except, as Guthrie's vitality and the recent demonstrations at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle point out, neither he nor those causes has been extinguished.
"There are people who believe we have gone to sleep, who advocate that we all stay awake all the time," says Guthrie. "But have you ever been around people who've been awake more than a few days? It's not what you want. Lots of people are walking the streets mumbling to themselves as a result of staying awake all the time.
"Of course, the idiocy you don't have to be awake for. If you want to go along with the program, you can do it in your sleep. But it's nice to see people becoming publicly passionate about the world again. It's reassuring to know that in political endeavors, like everything else, there are natural ebbs and flows."
Arlo Guthrie plays at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. Fri., 8 p.m. $26-$32.