Remembering Woody's ramblings
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 14, 2003) – A kind way to look at Wednesday night’s sprawling, rambling, three-and-a-half hour tribute show at the Guthrie Center is that it was in the sprawling, rambling spirit of the venue’s namesake, Woody Guthrie. In fact, that’s how the clumsily-named program, put together by folk-rock singer Jimmy Lafave, was officially billed: “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway: Concert in the Spirit of Woody Guthrie.”

And indeed, the iconoclastic spirit of Guthrie infused the evening’s performances by an all-star cast of contemporary folk talent, including Austin’s Slaid Cleaves, Michael Fracasso and Eliza Gilkyson, Maine’s Ellis Paul, Oklahoma’s Lafave, and husband-and-wife duo Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, who, like her grandfather, are seemingly from everywhere – South Carolina, California, Florida, and of course, right here in the Berkshires, where she was born and where her father – who did not take part in the proceedings -- has lived on and off for the better part of 40 years.

The best part of the evening was hearing Guthrie’s songs being played and sung by such a variety of distinctive voices. The individual singers lent their stamps to the material, but in the end, Guthrie’s songs remained somehow untouchable, unreachable, or rather, unassimilable. He wrote folk songs – almost a contradiction in terms – and in the end what makes them so strong and lasting is that they remain songs of the folk, as opposed to the odes to self-absorption that most so-called folksingers – including some on stage on Wednesday – tend to favor, songs that can belong only to the singer-songwriter, and never to the folk.

Not that there weren’t moments of creative achievement. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion performed a stirring, acoustic duet version of her grandfather’s anti-lynching protest song, “Hangknot, Skipknot,” capturing the childlike simplicity of the song belied by its searing, bitter outcry. Likewise, Lafave and Gilkyson turned in a compelling version of “Deportee (Train Wreck at Los Gatos),” in an arrangement recalling the duet by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez that was a highlight of the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue.

Gilkyson herself nailed the evening’s high point, applying her rich, deep alto with a hint of vibrato to “Pastures of Plenty,” fully inhabiting the song and sounding like a more organic, more soulful Joan Baez.

And not even Ellis Paul’s showy, overemotive vocal style – he’s the Mariah Carey of modern folk music – could destroy the basic verities of classic Guthrie works like “Hard Travelin.’”

Unfortunately, technical problems and bad staging choices caused the evening to drag at times. With so many different singer/guitarists on hand in different pairings – plus a modified rock quartet that backed the performers on about half the numbers – the show was a sound engineer’s nightmare, made even more nightmarish by having the artists come and go on and off stage in between every single number, so that each song required a new sound setup.

As a result, the connections that were supposed to have been drawn between Bob Childers’ narration of Guthrie’s prose writings and the songs lost dramatic impact. And while Childers, who lives not far from where Guthrie hailed, brought his authentic Oklahoma drawl to the proceedings, it was often at the expense of intelligibility.

Finally, all the needless coming and going, and the extended, half-hour intermission, caused the concert to ramble on until 11:30, dissipating the energy of a show desperately in need of better editing and stage managing.

But who knows, the same could probably have been said about Woody Guthrie.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 16, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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