[8 October 2009]
Arlo Guthrie was riding high back in 1969; you can hear it on this newly released disc of a live concert performance made back then. He sounds half-baked and that’s a good thing, because it keeps him musically loose and lets him tell his shaggy dog tales unselfconsciously. Hell yes, he noodles around on guitar and rambles as he talks, but Guthrie’s an inventive player and charming raconteur. Besides the longest track, one that goes on for more than a half-hour, is about a rainbow colored roach (the marijuana butt end of a joint kind, not the insect). How’s one supposed to sing that one while being straight?
The tape of this concert was lost for almost 30 years when Guthrie found it among his possessions in his basement, or at least that’s the story he’s telling, and it’s just weird enough to be true. Guthrie’s not exactly sure when or where the show was, but it was before the Woodstock Music Festival in August. While he was well-known for his “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” tale of a Thanksgiving dinner, littering fine, and the draft board, Guthrie was not the household name that his performance of “Coming into Los Angeles” at Woodstock helped make him.
Guthrie performs “Coming into Los Angeles” here, along with a rap about an earthquake that will send California into the ocean and turn Illinois into beachfront property. Guthrie exudes the charm of a snake oil salesman as he turns the song into an extended spiel.
The same is true for “The Unbelievable Motorcycle Tale”, a tall story rendition of “The Motorcycle Song”, complete with an actual cliffhanger and a police informer friend who uses electronic pickle as a bugging device. Guthrie incorporates details of a recent drug bust in the area and notes the cops in the audience for full effect.
Tales of ‘69 also includes three songs that have never been issued before: “If Ever I Should See the Mountain”, “Road to Everywhere”, and “Hurry to Me”. Guthrie’s talents as a songwriter are clearly evident here. He sings and plays these acoustic tunes without exposition, and the members of the audience respond to these compositions with the same enthusiasm they show to his more humorous ones.
But Guthrie is a funny guy, and his 30-plus-minute “Alice—Before Time Began” is the concert’s piece de resistance. The drug-soaked tale goes from ancient Egypt, to Alice’s Restaurant, to Russian and Chinese espionage, to a potential Third World War, to complete silliness with Guthrie never missing a beat. He delivers the seemingly improvised lines with confidence and panache, all the while involving the audience with a give and take dialogue that turns into a sing-along. He even baits “the fuzz” present with dope references to the crowd’s delight.
The excellent quality of the sound is also worth noting, especially on an analogue tape recording made almost 40 years ago. There are no obvious flaws, wow, or flutter, even when the disc is played at loud volumes. Instead, what comes across is good vibes. Guthrie was on that night, and performed before an appreciative audience. The new release serves as a time capsule of an earlier period in folk rock and successfully captures the innocence of that era.