Five questions with: Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie: Re:Generation Tour w/ Sarah Lee and Abe Guthrie

Englert Theatre — Wednesday, March 7 at 8 p.m.

Arlo Guthrie returns to the Englert Theatre on March 7. — photo by Dennis Andersen Photography

One of the most distinct and iconic voices of his generation (both literally and conceptually), Arlo Guthrie exemplifies the folk rock ethos. Since his satirical anti-war epic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” landed on his debut album, Alice’s Restaurant, in 1967, he had been renowned for works of social consciousness, much like his father, Woody, before him. But Arlo Guthrie doesn’t aim in his work to be the voice of a nation. His writing, even when political, is always from a deeply personal place. Some of his most powerful songs are the ones of love and restlessness.

That personal connection in his music is what makes his narrative, storytelling style so good. Songs like “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and “The Pause of Mr. Clause” on his 1968 followup, Arlo, showcase the delightful, lilting, often soft-spoken ramble that makes his live performances not to be missed. He is a consummate tale-spinner, at turns hilarious and mesmerizing.

His deep personal ties are also what lead to his choice in touring partners: son Abe and daughter Sarah Lee. Family and music are inextricably linked for the Guthries.

Arlo Guthrie returns to the Englert Theatre this year on Wednesday, March 7 for an 8 p.m. show as part of his Re:Generation tour, which aims to honor Woody in its embrace of touring with the Guthrie family as a whole.

“The road continues to beckon,” Arlo wrote on his website, “and the kids, with kids of their own, are hearing the call of their own thoughts. Onward!” 

Tickets to the show are $58.50. Little Village caught up with Arlo for a few questions via email.

Family has always had a huge impact on your music, and vice versa. What tactics did you use as a parent to encourage your children to cut their own musical path?

When they were young I took them with me. When they were teenagers I told them to get an education and find a real job. Works every time.

As you celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” last year, what were your thoughts on the state of activist art in the U.S.? Where do you see the most powerful and exciting calls for action coming from, in modern music?

All kinds of arts whether music or mathematics or any other kind has a language of it’s own. More often than not it crosses all artificial boundaries and becomes part of a person’s soul. It’s felt individually but affects the culture, the politics and the traditional beliefs we all have. I have no idea where it comes from, but most everyone feels it in some way or other. It’s kind of like air — it’s just there. Paying attention to it is activism. Ignoring it is delusional.

It’s been a while since you’ve released any studio recordings. Do you prefer touring to writing and recording? Do you continue to write new work?

Yeah, we haven’t been in the studio for a long time. But, we’ve released many live albums. I like the live recordings these days, as they better reflect what we do. I don’t write as much as I used to. But I like it more when I do.

Arlo Guthrie has been performing, recording and touring since his teens. — photo courtesy of the artist

The way you integrate storytelling and music has always been definitive to your style. Do you consider the music just another storytelling tool? Or does the music have primacy?

I think the best songs are the ones where the music and the words tell similar stories. Naturally that has little to do with popular music, so I don’t pay as much attention to what’s on the charts as I did decades ago. I just listen to what I like. I remember going to the Grammy Awards one year (awhile ago), and someone was onstage doing a song. It sounded better than anything I’d ever heard, had awesome lighting, and fabulous choreography and wardrobe. Everything was great except the words and music, which were just awful. But everyone loved it. And I thought to myself, “Some day, someone is going to use all that fluff and have something to say worth listening to. When that happens it’s going to change the world.” Meanwhile we just have to endure. True artistic genius doesn’t come along very often, but when it does, we all know about it. It seems to take a couple of hundred years between the those kinds or artists.

Why do we, as a culture, tell stories? Why do you — as a musician, as a father and grandfather, as a human being — tell stories?

All cultures tell stories in one way or another. They always have. It’s a bridge between everybody. Maybe it’s because the worst stories are pointless, and the best stories are worth listening to — the same way as it is with people.

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