The Woody Guthrie centennial celebration landed in Los Angeles for a weekend of scholarly discussions and a sold-out, 3-1/2 hour concert that ended with a most unlikely sight — more than 2,000 people pogo-ing while singing Guthrie’s best-known song, “This Land is Your Land.”
Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Joe Henry, Kris Kristofferson, John Doe, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Van Dyke Parks, the L.A. Band Dawes and the man who led the pogoing, Tom Morello, took turns taking lead at the concert, held at L.A. Live’s Club Nokia. On paper they may seem odd bedfellows — Parks, for example, added rococo touches to Guthrie that Elliott would never go near but they only served in exposing the depth of the music — but with an audience that delivered rapt attention to the music and speeches, it was clear the words of Woody were in charge.
Several of the musicians have participated in Nora Guthrie’s project to have songwriters put music to her father’s poetry, prose and unfinished songs. Browne crafted a lengthy tune out of a love letter titled “You Know the Night”; Morello had nearly all of the players onstage to close the show’s first half with “Ease My Revolutionary Mind”; and Joel Rafael took a 1948 Guthrie lyric and turned it into the Dylanesque “Ramblin Reckless Hobo.”
Guthrie’s familiar songs were peppered throughout the evening. John Doe, who noted that he was handed Dust Bowl ballads, wrapped his sumptuous tenor around “Do-Re-Mi”; Morello went from a solo version of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” to a band rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad.” “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” in the hands of Kristofferson, Nash and Parks, felt like a current decree on the state of immigration and 80-year-old Elliott, a student and traveling companion of Guthrie’s, gave “Pretty Boy Floyd” some contemporary heft by emphasizing the salient lines “Some will rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen” and “You won’t never see an outlaw/Drive a family from their home.”
Nash unveiled a new song, one that addressed a political stance that might mystify the standard CSN crowd accustomed to protesting wars, promoting alternative energy sources and saving the whales. Nash presented Bradley Manning, the Army solider who handed classified cables to WikiLeaks, as a working man exposing the truth; “All I did was blow the whistle and the game began,” Nash sings in the soldier’s voice.
Dawes, pleased to represent the influence of Guthrie on a new generation of young folk-rockers, performed the closing track from their last album “Nothing Is Wrong,” noting the story-laden “A Little Bit of Everything” was inspired by Guthrie. They also performed Guthrie’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” a set list staple of the Grateful Dead, taking it slow and easy, a canter when compared to the Dead’s galloping renditions.
For much of the night Greg Leisz accompanied singers on dobro and Mandolin, Don Heffington was the drummer and Rob Wasserman the bassist. Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, started the evening with her singing partner Johnny Irion opened the evening with “California Stars,” one of the first songs Billy Bragg completed when Nora Guthrie got the idea to hand over her father’s notebooks to younger artists to complete.
Norah Guthrie, who organized the concert along with the Grammy Museum, stayed on the sidelines through the show, finally entered the stage during the penultimate song, “This Train is Bound for Glory,” waltzing with Morello.
Two days prior to the concert, the intersection of 4th and Main streets in Los Angeles was named Woody Guthrie Square, commemorating the area he lived in in the 1930s before moving to the suburb of Glendale and then New York.