Nearly a century’s worth of American folk history took the stage at the Uptown Theatre Saturday night, with Arlo Guthrie, now 70, channeling the spirit of his legendary folk singing father, Woody Guthrie, and sharing a substantial piece of the show with his folk-singing daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie.
The evening felt like a live performance at the Smithsonian Institution as Arlo resurrected his dad’s “This Land Is Your Land” — written in 1940 as a more earthbound alternative to Kate Smith’s hit of the era, “God Bless America” — and sang his own satirical ‘60s hit, the 18-minute “Alice’s Restaurant,” with the audience singing the rousing ending.
Framed by his brilliantly white curly hair that flowed to his shoulders, Arlo was in top form. He dropped in some snappy anecdotes from the ‘60s, tossed around names of folk legends who visited his childhood home, and then sang songs that evoke a era when music commented on social conditions and celebrated our shared humanity.
The Uptown audience was a mature one whose hair color mostly matched Arlo’s. When “Alice’s Restaurant,” with its deadpan anti-Vietnam War lyrics, was an alternative radio phenomenon 50 years ago, they were in their youths. Arlo refreshed the song’s 2018 incarnation with some lyrical changes that recognized today’s privacy concerns on social media.
Arlo isn’t the world’s best singer, but he is a distinctive one. There’s a nasal quality that makes him sound uncannily the way we remember Bob Dylan in his performance youth.
This connection was reinforced when Arlo sang three Dylan classics: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A Changin’.” He occasionally played with a neck-mounted harmonica, reinforcing the Dylanesque image.
This latter song is as descriptive of America today as when it was written in the early ‘60s, said Arlo, who avoided explicit commentary on America in the Trump era.
This was Arlo’s “Re:Generation Tour” with an all-family stage presence. He and his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, shared singing duties, while his son Abe played keyboard and Abe’s son Krishna played drums. This family vibe lent a sweetness to the nearly two-hour performance, that included an intermission.
Sarah Lee is a lyrical songbird with a country-sounding voice. She sang the night’s first song, “Not Far from My Heart,” and contributed multiple original compositions, including what could easily become a children’s classic, “Go Waggaloo.”
One of the evening’s highlights was her a cappella rendition of Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone.” If an effective, gentle case can be made for social activism, this is it.
The audience gave Arlo its most rousing applause for “Alice’s Restaurant.” He performed his one-and-only Top 40 hit, “The City of New Orleans,” to magical effect, the decades fading away.
At the concert’s end, the band got a standing ovation that prompted a low-key encore, with Arlo putting words found in his dad’s archives to music, creating the meditative song “My Peace.”
Arlo Guthrie delivered the goods, reminding the audience that America’s folk tradition is a powerful one, even if you have to scrounge to find its legacy in so much of today’s popular music.