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Woody’s Brood

By B.A. Nilsson

The Guthrie Family Rides Again

The Egg, Nov. 13

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1965, Arlo Guthrie was convicted of creating a public nuisance. You probably know the story; it involved litter. The same weekend, Arlo could have watched the King Family on television and seen a horrific vision of white-bread musical hell. If he did, it may have planted a seed. But even if he didn’t, he has redefined the notion of what a musical family is all about. It’s highly doubtful, for example, that the King Family would celebrate an amorous mismatch with a song titled “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow.”

But this, the fourth number in a satisfyingly long and refreshing program, came to us from the pen of Arlo’s ukulele-wielding daughter Cathy, who performed it with siblings Abe (keyboards), Annie (autoharp) and Sarah Lee (guitar), along with Abe’s son Krishna on guitar and drummer Terry Hall.

The program started with the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, guitar wizard Johnny Irion, with their evocative “When the Lilacs Are in Bloom.” And then more of the family was added with each song, until Arlo emerged to sing his father’s “Gypsy Davy.”

“Woody liked to steal songs,” Arlo explained, underscoring the complex heritage of the number, “but we found out we didn’t have to call it ‘stealing’ when Pete Seeger came along and called it the ‘folk tradition.’” At this remove, Woody Guthrie can be seen as a crossroad in that tradition. He was this country’s best-known gatherer and rewriter with a huge amount of original material on offer as well. And his legacy has grown to inspire singers and songwriters from many musical disciplines. To have his descendants here to further his legacy is icing on the cake. Arlo established himself early on as an original voice in music, but didn’t seem the type to settle into a performing patriarchy. Last week’s concert at the Egg proves there’s none better.

Arlo sang a couple of Woody’s outlaw songs, including the timeless “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Then he brought out still more of the family, including some cute and eager grandchildren who took their places on stage with an effective mix of professionalism and kidlike spontaneity.

Noting that Woody left many lyrics unset and unpublished, Arlo led the group in one of his father’s many kids’ songs, this one set by Hans-Eckardt Wenzel and titled “Every Hundred Years”—referring to a preferred frequency of face-washing.

“Take Me to Show-and-Tell” was another original by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion, the latter noting that they wanted to write a children’s song “that wouldn’t make you want to fling yourself out of the minivan,” and it had the right balance of fun and irony to offer some grownup appeal. Arlo’s been working the kid-lit vein as well, and recited his poem “Mooses Come Walking,” written, he noted, to scare the children into bed. (It’s featured in his book of the same title.)

The first half ended with classic Arlo—“Coming Into Los Angeles,” complete with shaggy-dog intro—and classic Woody, a rousing version of another timeless classic, “Deportee,” with searing guitar work by Irion.

Janis Ian’s setting of Woody’s lyric “I Hear You Sing Again” was a highlight of the second half, along with two settings by Billy Bragg and Wilco, featured on their two Mermaid Avenue recordings: “Birds and Ships,” beautifully sung by Sarah Lee, and “Airline to Heaven.”

Woody’s mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, collaborated with him on some lyrics that were posthumously discovered by Arlo’s sister, Nora. When she showed them to the Klezmatics, they were excited enough to devote a pair of CDs to Woody’s work, and “Gonna Get Through This World” showed a unique blend of cultures every bit as affecting as the blues that followed (“Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses”), from Woody’s occasional performing partners Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

More talent continues to bubble forth. Krishna not only is a burn-ass guitarist, but also showed an original songwriting voice in “Sleep,” a love ballad.

It wouldn’t be an Arlo concert without “City of New Orleans,” which glowed nicely in the folk-country context the Guthries set so well, and the roots of that context came through in “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a tribute to the Carter Family. But the extended “This Land Is Your Land” that officially finished the show was as effective an evocation of the spirit of Woody Guthrie as could possibly be imagined, with four generations of the family thus represented and an enthusiastic audience-turned- family joining in.

Happy Sad

Grant-Lee Phillips

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Nov. 13

From those sexy, doomed British Romantic poets to gangstas keepin’ it real, the notion of a link between creativity and hardship has proved incredibly durable. The variable in the equation that separates the serious artist from the sell-out is sometimes merely conspicuous suffering. So, it can be tough to be both a fan and a decent human being: You hate to wish difficulty on a guy, but melancholy and outrage just work for some people.

Certainly they worked well for Grant- Lee Phillips. Phillips’ songwriting, both with his band Grant Lee Buffalo and as a solo artist, was always informed by a kind of anthemic fragility. His much-commented-upon voice ranged from bellow to croon, evoking a injured idealism kept upright not so much by optimism but by sheer momentum; a voice connoting the kind of temperament likely to burn out.

Fortunately, it appears Phillips’ muse gets sufficient sunlight and serotonin.

Performing at the Iron Horse on Friday, Phillips was warm and affable: a good fit for the material from his latest album, Little Moon. Phillips’ most recently released songs bounce where once they barreled, and caper where once they keened. In fact, he opened with a hat trick of happy: First, the title track from the record, a lilting lullaby (fitting enough from a new dad, as Phillips is); then “Good Morning Happiness,” an unironic and upbeat testament to that feeling (of which Phillips sang back in the day “. . . it’s hard to come by, I confess/I’m bad at this thing, happiness/If you find it share it with the rest of us”); and “Strangest Thing,” a celebration of the light to be found even in darkness (“I don’t feel sad when Cash wears black/I hear the train comin’/Good things down the railroad track/You gotta believe in something”).

So thoroughgoing is Phillips’ cheer these days that even the one Grant Lee Buffalo song of the evening, “Truly, Truly,” was hopeful. Though, as a fan of old, the skimping on back catalog sing-alongs was mildly disappointing (no “Fuzzy”? No “Shining Hour”? No “Lone Star Song”? No “Mockingbirds,” for cryin’ out loud?!), the set, judged on its own merits, was highly satisfying. Phillips’ new songs shine: Sure and bright melodies, lyrics more transparent than tricky, and an open, comfortable emotionality result in tunes that might have been written by a chipper Harry Nilsson.

As a performer, Phillips is witty, confident, and self-deprecating (he introduced a song from his 2001 solo album, Mobilize, by pointing out that anyone interested should keep an eye out for it if “yard sale-ing” over the weekend). A more charming stage presence is hard to conjure. (Boyfriends in the audience, be prepared. ’Nuff said.) Between songs, Phillips joked and chatted with the audience and with the members of the night’s opening act, Winterpills, who backed him tastefully on several songs, including covers of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” and the Beatles “Long, Long, Long.”

—John Rodat

Shaken, Not Stuffed

Prefuse 73, Skeleton$, Luciano Chessa

EMPAC, Nov. 13

When Prefuse 73 was last in the region, he pulled an unfortunate opening slot for the party-hearty Girl Talk in Skidmore’s boomy Sports and Recreation Center. When all was said and done, his set sunk beneath the memory of rabid undergrads storming the headliner’s stage as a totemic stuffed coyote bobbed amid the seething mass. When Dan Deacon, the scheduled headliner for Friday’s multi-band bill, canceled at the last minute, Prefuse 73 got his shot at redemption. EMPAC’s Studio 2 seemed the perfect forum for his cerebral beat-scapes, but in a strange twist of fate, the DJ had first to contend with more stuffed animals.

Opening the evening were Skeleton$, an avant rock group from New York City with a sound so hyphenated that the post-set buzz found audience members deliberating with each other over who exactly the band reminded them of. Built on three guitars and a drum kit, each song veered at times toward outward noise, but every atonal passage seemed meticulously composed and a sense of delicate precision trumped the potential chaos. With one guitarist playing down-octave basslines, the band mostly dealt in interlocking rhythmic patterns that came off more like math-rock than Afrobeat. Vocalist Matt Mehlan used the aggregate lilt to dispense dense, observational lyrics a la Stephen Malkmus or the Slip’s Brad Barr, in a manner that mostly defied the song’s structural foundation.

EMPAC’s New Nothing series prides itself on offering challenging work to its unsuspecting audience, but Luciano Chessa’s set might well make all future shows pale in comparison. Before a floor-seated audience, the Italian composer stooped over his grand piano with a large pink teddy bear on his lap and proceeded to plunk out spare tone-poems with the animal’s paws. I kid you not. After each piece, Chessa brought out a different animal, ultimately performing something of a duet with a faceless ragdoll. Changing gears, he then read an animated piece of futurist poetry in Italian and had a seat in his easy chair. After turning on a large TV that showed light refracting off of water, he returned to the piano, which he proceeded to fill with vibrating electric toothbrushes. The effect, however, defied the spectacle’s novelty as the droning clatter began to mirror the image on screen.

Maybe it was Deacon’s cancellation, or maybe it was the curse of stuffed animals. Either way, by the time Prefuse 73 took the stage, Studio 2 had thinned to a few dozen devotees. Fresh off the wonderfully sci-fi Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian, the glitch-hop pioneer commanded a table full of flashing samplers, loop stations, and effects consoles, which, in conjunction with a Les Paul the artist used to trigger fuzzy atmospherics, rendered dense, multitextural sound environments. Coupled with strobing, four-wall projections by local artists lmnopf, the whole thing verged on sensory overload. As Prefuse’s beats turned in on themselves and dissolved, it became easier to zone into the images of Danny DeVito and macroinvertebrates than actually dance. Fortunately, Prefuse eventually put down the guitar to focus on his beat-making apparatus. Even if it didn’t elicit a full-blown dance party, watching a master work his mysterious array of knobs and buttons was still captivating.

—Josh Potter

Metal Up Your . . . Alley

Photo: Julia Zave

If you’re still a fan of Metallica after all these years, you were probably at last Thursday’s Times Union Center show. So you already know that the multi-platinum-selling band played a (reportedly) crowd-pleasing, career-spanning set that featured such modern metal archetypes as “Battery” and “Ride the Lightning” as well as more modern Mighty Met fare as “The Day That Never Comes.” But if you’re a real, hardcore Metallica fan, you wanted to hear the power-ballads, and you were ecstatic over “Nothing Else Matters.”



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