Arlo Guthrie In Times Like These

photo by Jon C. Hancock- for the Grateful Web

To some purists, hearing Arlo Guthrie's, In Times Like These, released last summer, they might figure the live album was overproduced because of the symphony orchestra that backs up Guthrie's acoustic guitar and piano work. The result, however, is a recording that showcases Guthrie's singular storytelling voice and the nakedness of his instruments, while providing a theatrical swell behind his songs. As a listener, you almost anticipate seeing a movie unfold with the next note.

Folksinger, master storyteller, and all-round genuine human being, Arlo Guthrie has been entertaining for over four decades. In 2006, I had an opportunity to interview this folk legend while he was on the Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary Massacre Tour, where he recreated the insanely-funny 18-minute monologue that made him famous. My husband and I shared that experience with our twenty-something son at a local university concert that Guthrie did here in North Dakota.  It was our pleasure to pass along the humor and social consciousness renderings that Guthrie was know for.

When I interviewed Guthrie that year, he had just come from Lexington, KY, where he had recorded this album with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Nardolillo. "We've done shows with about thirty different orchestras, over the last five years," he said two years ago. "This is, I think, the first time we're working with a young orchestra. It's really great, working with young people."  The orchestra did slip in thirteen guest artists who were friends of the university, of which five were faculty. But still the large orchestra was composed of university music students. Nardolillo has the infamous distinction of breaking into Guthrie's dressing room at the Lincoln Center during a performance. He did manage to make a plea for doing work with orchestras before he was hauled off by security!

This experiment with making music with orchestras is not just using a symphony to back whatever Guthrie does up front on stage. Instead, it is creating something new and fresh that is crossing genres. "The trick," Guthrie said, "is to try to do something that is not just something you could do with a synthesizer, but to create orchestral arrangements in the symphonic tradition rather than make them sit there playing chords." He insisted that he wanted to use the talent that was present in the orchestra. "We've done that, I think," he continued. "We've got some great charts that were written by a friend of mine who is new to the kind of music I play."

What has happened and is very present in this new CD is a synthesis of musical traditions. "There's a great classical tradition that most people are probably not as familiar with as they could be," Guthrie added. "It's a situation where our audience will probably come to see us even if we're playing with a herd of elephants. And there are a lot of symphony people who would go to hear the orchestra, regardless of who is playing with them. So you get a wonderfully mixed audience of people for whom the whole thing is new."

While at UK, Guthrie also taught his first university course. "There is a lot of interest in the part that music plays in different aspects of the culture, certainly for somebody from the sixties when music was really important, when music was the only vehicle for popular dissent,' he said. "And so it can play an important part in creating the soundtrack for social change. That's one aspect they're looking at.

"Others may be looking at more technical takes on this:  how do you make a record or those kinds of things," he says. "Everything from the simplest mechanical information to the business of doing music within and without the entertainment industry."

In 1983, Arlo left a major record company and started his own label, Rising Son Records, and quickly advised young musicians to go the do-it- yourself route. "I've done both. I've worked 15 years with Warners and then the last 20 years, we've done it on our own. We were really one of the first people to strike out from the stable of the major labels and do it ourselves. 'Course a lot of people are doing it now."

Certainly, a lot of independent bands are doing that and even some bands that were signed are becoming independent mainly because of the nature of control. What people forget is that you may get a big advance, but you've got to pay it back. Guthrie added, "Not only that. They have the best creative accounting in the world. Even for purely financial reasons, it really doesn't make sense to sell yourself to a corporation that is basically owned by a different corporation, as they are both own by another corporation. By the time that you get done looking at the big picture, the music part of the company you're working with is a very small part of a large company that has a lot of different interests. So, their interest in you as a single artist becomes minuscule compared to what they are doing.

"If you do it yourself and you're actually interested in yourself, not only do you have no one looking over your shoulder, but you stand to make a living, which I guarantee that you will not do when you are the minuscule focus of some global network."

Unfortunately, musicians still believe in the magic of a record deal.  "The reality has not flowed to the general public," Guthrie said. "You would have to have worked in it for a little while before you realize that not only will you not be somebody, but you will be poor. There are all kinds of drawbacks of getting caught up in the entertainment industry."

Rising Son Records not only produces Guthrie's music but his children's recordings and some by other artists. "We're beginning to branch out," he said. "For me, this was not an easy thing to do. The only thing we had was the ability to make music. I didn't know anything about the business of it so it took many years to get to the point where we actually knew what we were doing.... But the bottom line is that when we make a record and somebody likes it and purchases it, we do the accounting. We know how it works. We know that we can actually make a living doing this."

Guthrie continues to make his own kind of music. In Times Like These proves that he can still make a significant mark on the music scene. Of special note is Guthrie's arrangement of "St. James Infirmary." With careful addition of horns, Klezmer clarinet, and stride piano, the simple folk classic takes on a significant musical reawakening. The orchestra also breathes life into his tender "If You Would Just Drop By," which was one of my all-time favorites. This version is fresh and will be eye-opening to old folkies like me, as well attract new fans. Though some of Guthrie's songs become pop songs. Others retain their folk roots and the orchestra just supports that effort. "In Times Like These," the title cut, is left as a solo voice and guitar piece.

Even Steve Goodman's song, "City of New Orleans," that Guthrie made famous is enhanced by the orchestra. It is always a crowd favorite. But there are unexpected touches, such as horns and drums that peek out from the strings.

Also, included in the mix are three other songs that Guthrie didn't write.  Glen Anthony's ballad, "You Are the Song," may have been a bit of a stretch for Guthrie vocally, but it works, and will appeal to the symphony/pop crowd. Huddie Ledbetter's "Good Night Irene," unfortunately, is treated as a theatrical musical number. There is no way to make it less so with an orchestra. In contrast, Luigi Creatore's "Can't Help Falling in Love" does work both for the orchestra and for Guthrie.

All in all, In Times Like These is a bold melding of the folk experience and symphony structure. I can understand why Guthrie keeps working with orchestras, encouraging new talent, and drawing new fans. Check it out.

Just Like Old Times for Panic in Memphis (09/21/07)

photos by Amanda Bell- for the Grateful Web

Widespread Panic made their return to Memphis, this time with a new twist, a new guitarist and a few old tricks up their sleeve.

This year's Fall Tour-opening run marked the band's first shows in this melting pot of American Music since the end of July, 2006, and a few changes were apparent this time around.  

Not only was this their first time playing the new downtown FedEx Forum, only a stone's throw from world-famous Beale Street, but it was new guitarist Jimmy Herring's first Memphis Panic shows since he joined the band at this time last year.

The band's last shows at their old home, the dark, dingy and loveable old space ship that was MidSouth Coliseum, were also two of the final three shows for former guitarist George McConnell, who had replaced founding member Mikey Houser just before his death from pancreatic cancer on August 10, 2002. McConnell quit last summer's tour after the next day's show in St. Louis, once he confronted the rest of the band regarding rumors of his lame-duck status.

But in a new venue, with a new guitarist, the same old road warriors lit the same old town on fire, showing the versatility that has made them a stalwart of consistency for over twenty years.

This show had a little bit of everything you could ask for from a Panic show.

There was the bouncy, happy sound, exemplified by the show opening trio of A of D, Space Wrangler and Walkin' (For Your Love). It was Herring's first try at the instrumental A of D, a song not played since longtime producer John Keane and Houser's old guitar tech Sam Holt shared the lead spot to help the band finish last summer's tour, before Herring was hired for fall. Wrangler and Walkin' got the band warmed up and the crowd in the mood and ready to keep singing along with front man and resident preacher John Bell.

Another bit of joy marked the opening of the second set, with the instrumental Party at Your Mama's House showcasing Herring's growing sense of comfort with his new band in the form of a very patient jam. Bell also chimed in throughout with nice work on the slide, which is pretty much the only time during a show you can easily hear his instrumental contribution. But, hey, they don't pay the man to play the guitar.   

But that wasn't all this show had in store.

There were the hard rocking foot-stompers. The upbeat Tie Your Shoes followed Walkin', and gave the crowd a usual second set piece of sandwich bread in the first set. The song allowed both the rapid-fire notes of Herring and the rolling bass line of Dave Schools to shine.

More songs in this vein would follow the rest of the night, from the dark rollercoaster of funk that is Pigeons in the first set to their heavy take on the traditional blues of Junior in the second set.

One of the hardest rockers came in the person of Glory, making its first appearance in a set in nearly six full years. And the band nailed this version, appropriately providing a rare surprise for the fans in a town with its own special place in Panic lore.

And while Herring continues to find his comfort zone with this group, there are still noticeable growing pains. It seemed as though he approached shows in the spring as a contest to see how many notes he could play during solos, this Eddie Van Halen-esque style being a stark contrast to the floating, psychedelic sound of Houser. He began picking his spots a little better over the summer, but he overdid it a bit this time on songs like Big Wooly Mammoth and Surprise Valley.

The rest of the band had their moments, too. One can expect some hiccups during tour openers, and this Friday in Memphis was no different. Schools started early for the encore, Imitation Leather shoes, before becoming visibly agitated. Bell appeared to sound unsure of himself as he began the vocals to Climb to Safety, which led to a slightly disjointed beginning. And a second set drop back into Chilly Water from You Got Yours was a bit sloppy.

But, as it is with most Panic shows, the good far outweighed the bad inside the Forum.

The highlight of the first set came with the jam out of Rebirtha, into the fan favorite Ribs and Whiskey. The former ended with lots of funk and great work from Herring, before dissipating into easily one of the longest, most patient Ribs intros that this reviewer has heard, with Herring accented nicely by great slide work from Bell, both flowing over Todd Nance's steady kick drum.

More exemplary jamming followed in the second set, first with the opener, Party, and then with one of the funkiest versions of Climb to Safety you will ever hear. Keyboardist Jojo Hermann carried the jam with his clavinet, riding on top of a funky bass line from Schools that reminded one of their cover of Solid Rock, and song from Bob Dylan's Christian revivalist period. It was a wonderful change of pace for a song too often mailed in with little variation within the jam.

Hermann was not done there, however. His next standout moment would begin a stretch of the show that exemplified why fans still come back to Panic after all these years, because they feature a dark, evil edge to their sound that is truly unmatched by anyone else in the scene.

A drum intro from Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz led into an especially sinister version of Dr. John's I Walk on Guilded Splinters, featuring Hermann putting the fear into the crowd with a mix of funky Hammond B-3 and chaotic piano. The jam also featured outstanding work by Herring and a lot of call-and-response between the two of them.

Guilded segued nicely into a Chilly Water sandwich, the meat being more loud, dark, thunderous rock in the form of You Got Yours. The band followed this with the unquestionable highlight of the evening, Colonel Bruce Hampton's Time is Free, which Herring effectively carried on his back with one stretch of psychedelic shredding after another, helped by Bell's growling vocals and rambling raps. 

The set very well could have ended after Chilly Water, and probably should have ended after the marathon version of Time is Free, but Herring jumped right into the roaring stomp of Neil Young's classic, Mr. Soul, finally ending a monster second set and leaving much of the crowd exhausted, undoubtedly nursing sore arms from constant fist-pumping.

The crowd hardly seemed bothered by the short encore, but, after the previous stretch, who could blame them?

After all, once Imitation Leather Shoes gave them time to catch their breath, the debauchery of Beale Street awaited them outside the Forum's doors.

09/21/07 FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN

1: A of D, Space Wrangler, Walkin' (For Your Love), Tie Your Shoes > Pigeons, Blue Indian, Rebirtha > Ribs and Whiskey, Big Wooly Mammoth

2: Party at Your Mama's House > Junior, Glory, Smoking Factory, Surprise Valley > Climb to Safety, Guilded Splinters > Chilly Water > You Got Yours > Chilly Water, Time is Free > Mr. Soul

E: Imitation Leather Shoes 

Good Times Bad Times: Rose Hill Drive Does Zeppelin I

As I walked up to the Boulder Theater on Friday night there were a ton of people standing out side. Normally these are fans having their last cigarette before heading into the venue for the show. But tonight all of these people were looking for anyone with an extra ticket. I grabbed my ticket from will call and headed in to the all ages show. The place was packed! I heard there were 115 people on the guest list, not to mention the fact the place was sold out by Friday morning.