Arlo Guthrie, Rosanne Cash, the Flaming Lips and More at the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert

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PHOTO BY AL AUMULLER. COURTESY OF THE WOODY GUTHRIE ARCHIVES
  • Photo by Al Aumuller. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives

Arlo Guthrie | Old Crow Medicine Show | Tim O'Brien | Jimmy LaFave | Rosanne Cash | Hanson | Del McCoury Band | Jackson Browne | The Flaming Lips | John Mellencamp This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert Brady Theater, Tulsa, Oklahoma March 10, 2012

After decades of neglecting their most famous musical native son, Oklahoma made up for lost time by finally honoring Woody Guthrie during his centennial year by hosting the first of five tribute concerts around the country. Organized by the Grammy Museum, an all-star line-up assembled for a sold-out crowd at Tulsa's Brady Theater to honor the folk legend.

Woody's son Arlo opened the show with a classic take on his dad's "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" before being joined by a rambunctious Old Crow Medicine Show who backed him on "Howdjadoo." The motored forward with this collaboration model for most of the night: artists backing other before taking the spotlight, creating a flow that kept each artist and genre on even footing.

As Arlo stepped off stage, Old Crow Medicine Show blasted through "Union Maid" with the spitfire Appalachian zeal that managed to surpass even their wildest hillbilly rave-ups, an energy they maintained when bluegrass legend Tim O'Brien took lead vocals on "Sun Jumped Up".

Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave got in touch with his Oklahoma red dirt roots with the night's first non-Guthrie composition, "Woody's Road" by Bob Childress. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and accordion LaFave honored Guthrie with a gruff, powerful tenor.

Rosanne Cash joined LaFave, and was greeted on stage by Jackson Browne, who came out just to give her a hug before she took backing harmonies on "Deportee". With a voice that conveys sadness better than just about anyone, putting Cash on backup seemed an odd choice But it worked. LaFave conveyed the anger and outrage of life and love lost to deplorable work conditions, while Cash provided an undercurrent of despair.

Cash and her husband, John Leventhall, played dual acoustic guitars on "Pretty Boy Floyd". At the end, Cash made one of the few political statements of the night, repeating the song's most memorable couplet: "Some will rob you with a six-gun. Some with a fountain pen," and added, "And it's still happening every day," to whoops and cheers from the crowd.

Next she delved into the list of one hundred songs she should know, that her father gave her when she was eighteen, choosing Blind Willie Johnson's "Motherless Children", which mirrored the destruction of Guthrie's family after his mother's institutionalization and death. She concluded with foreclosure ballad "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore", without the harmonica honk of the original, slowed down, Cash's voices bright and heartbreaking.

Arlo returned with HANSON for a hand-clapping, stomping four-part harmony rebel-rouser, "Blowin' Down the Road (I Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way)", full of spirit and gospel fire.

Tim O'Brien returned with legendary bluegrass breathern, The Del McCoury Band for high lonesome harmonies on "Philadelphia Lawyer (Reno Blues)", followed by "Pastures of Plenty", giving the California migrant worker tome the feel of a coal mine dirge. The show cut to intermission with a sing-along of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya".

After an intermission the Grammy Museum presented a plaque to Wood Guthrie Free Folk Festival President Deana Cloud and Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon - Woody's one surviving sibling. With the family's curly hair and dressed in sparkling pink, Edgmon waved and hammed to the crowd from her wheelchair, telling the audience, "I know every one of you!"

Jackson Browne followed the presentation with "You Know the Night". Browne found the poem in the Guthrie archives and set it to a simple, up-tempo orchestration with brushed drums, acoustic guitar and electric upright bass. Guthrie wrote the long poem depicting his first meeting with wife Marjorie. Written after Huntington's Disease ended his performing and traveling life, the song captures Guthrie as a stability-searching romantic.

With an audience filled with older folkies, there seemed a good chance local boys the Flaming Lips might scare away half the audience. Especially when they arrived on stage with four iPads and no instruments. With bandmates creating a soundscape like a slide guitar concerto in outer space, a heavily reverbbed Wayne Coyne treated "Vigilante Man" to a dark chant over a dense bass heartbeat. While murmurs of, "This is weird," peppered the crowd, there wasn't a shortage of fans young and old rushing the stage. After all, Guthrie encouraged individuality and weirdness, and new ways to tell a story.

Browne joined the Flaming Lips for vocals on "The Sun and the Rain", playing acoustic guitar with Coyne while the band continued weaving their cosmic foundation. The warmth of the guitars and Browne's always-emotive voice created a balance of man and machine that sounded like the onset of nuclear winter.

The Flaming Lips concluded its set with Oklahoma's Official State Rock Song, "Do You Realize?" While it has little to do with Guthrie, it's hard to find fault with an exuberant performance to an enraptured crowd. Next, John Mellencamp didn't veer from his wheelhouse, giving "This Train is Bound for Glory" the solid rock treatment with an accordion on the side . "I'm just telling the truth in Woody's words up here," he told the crowd before inviting them to sing along with "Do Re Mi". For his finale he made the bold assertion, "Some songs get passed down. Some call it stealing. Some call it creation. I stole this from Woody," before bringing the crowd - especially the VIP section - to their feet with "Pink Houses". A little disheartening to see the most enthusiastic response of the night go to a song that wasn't Woody's. Still, "Pink Houses" is a populist anthem. Guthrie embraced populism as much as individuality. Presenting a song everyone knows so soon after the uniqueness of the Flaming Lips juxtaposed Guthrie's complexities of balancing personal innovation with group accessibility.

Arlo returned for an acoustic, solo performance of Ledbelly's "Alabama Bound" and his father's "1913 Massacre". He told how he loved how his father could take a story he'd been told, or read in the newspaper, and have it be accurate. After his father wrote "Tom Joad," Arlo said his father received a letter from The Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck that simply read "You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me an entire book to say."

Since Guthrie continued to write long after he was able to perform, many artists have taken his unrecorded lyrics and set them to music. Arlo ended his solo set with "I Hear You Sing Again," one of the unrecorded songs that was given music by Janis Ian, lamenting the loss of the parent who gave the child music.

Mellencamp joined Arlo to trade couplets on "Oklahoma Hills" before the other musicians filled the stage for "Hard Traveling".

You know what the grand finale was, of course. Everyone on stage for "This Land is Your Land" with every voice in the audience singing along. And yes, it was as moving and goosebump-inducing as it should be.

But that wasn't the end. In true folk fashion, Arlo opted to teach everyone a song that hadn't been rehearsed. The two-verse "My Peace" was one of his father's final compositions. With just his guitar, he led superstars and cheap seat denizens alike in the simple melody Woody Guthrie left as one of his final messages:

I pass my peace around and round To hands of every hue. My peace, my peace, is all I've got That I can give to you.

Woody Guthrie gave his peace to the world, but it certainly wasn't the only thing he gave. He gave the world over 3000 songs and poems. He gave affirmation to the odd and downtrodden. He gave his children - Arlo and Nora, who oversees his massive body of work, making his words available for musicians to bring to life. He gave the inspiration to every musician on that stage to find new and personal ways to retell his timeless stories that still touch hearts, engage brains, and ignite the human spirit.

He gave a reason to celebrate the birth of an American icon a century ago, in a way he should have been celebrated while he was still with us.

Setlist

1. Arlo Guthrie - Talking Dust Bowl Blues 2. Arlo Guthrie with Old Crow Medicine Show - Howdjadoo 3. Old Crow Medicine Show - Union Maide 4. Tim O'Brien with Old Crow Medicine Show - Sun Jumped Up 5. Jimmy LaFave - Woody's Road 6. Jimmy LaFave with Rosanne Cash - Deportee 7. Rosanne Cash - Pretty Boy Floyd 8. Rosanne Cash - Motherless Children 9. Rosanne Cash - I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore 10. Arlo Guthrie and HANSON - Blowin' Down the Road (I Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way) 11. Tim O'Brien with the Del McCoury Band - Philadelphia Lawyer (Reno Blues) 12. Del McCoury Band - Pastures of Plenty 13. Del McCoury Band - So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya

14. Jackson Browne - You Know the Night 15. The Flaming Lips - Vigilante Man 16. The Flaming Lips with Jackson Browne - The Sun and the Rain 17. The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize? 18. John Mellencamp - This Train is Bound for Glory 19. John Mellencamp - Do Re Mi 20 John Mellencamp - Pink Houses 21. Arlo Guthrie - Alabama Bound 22. Arlo Guthrie - 1913 Massacre 23. Arlo Guthrie - I Hear You Sing Again 24. Arlo Guthrie with John Mellencamp - Oklahoma Hills 25. Everyone - Hard Travelin' 26. Everyone - This Land is Your Land 27. Everyone - My Peace

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