Concert Review: This Land is Your Land — Woody Guthrie at 100
The Kennedy Center is a rather opulent venue for a folk music concert, even if the concert is celebrating one of the 20th century’s most important singer-songwriters. But the two dozen musicians that took the stage Sunday night filled the large concert hall with a joyful noise that surely rattled the chandeliers. Woody Guthrie’s “100th birthday party,” as Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor described it, has been going on for the past ten months, with shows and celebrations from California to Coney Island (because “someone had to pull this country together,” said Nora Guthrie); soon, the party will move overseas, with events scheduled in Austria and Germany.
The Washington DC show brought together acts from across the American music spectrum, from a cappella gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock to former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello for a three hour show that included songs, stories, and readings from Woody’s writing.
Despite several hiccups with the sound—changing setups every ten minutes to accommodate each different act couldn’t have been easy for the crew—it was a fantastic show, though there was a solemn undercurrent running throughout the evening, as Arlo Guthrie’s wife, Jackie, passed away that morning; at one point during the show, Judy Collins noted that all of the musicians were performing with Jackie and Arlo (who was scheduled to appear) in mind. As a whole, the night showcased Guthrie’s versatility as a songwriter, going from goofy kids’ songs like “Riding in My Car” (performed by Donovan) to his Dust Bowl ballads to labor songs like “1913 Massacre,” covered by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
There were too many outstanding moments to list them all individually, so hopefully the number of cameras onstage meant that the concert was being filmed for a future DVD release, but a few songs stick out. Old Crow Medicine Show kicked off the evening with infectious versions of “Howdjadoo” and “Union Maid.” Tim O’Brien was the workhorse of the evening, playing mandolin for Jimmy LaFave’s take on “Hard Travelin’” and Ani DiFranco’s unremarkable performance of “Jolly Banker,” and, in one of the best moments of the evening, joining the Del McCoury Band for “Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You).” The McCourys also teamed up with banjo player Tony Trischka for a stellar rendition of “Woody’s Rag,” Guthrie’s only known instrumental. Lucinda Williams unveiled “House of Earth,” unpublished lyrics that she set to music (it’s also the title of a Guthrie novel that will be published next year); Jackson Browne also put Woody’s words to music with “You Know the Night,” a song whose lyrics were taken from a letter Guthrie wrote to his wife, Marjorie (the unedited version Browne played was at least ten minutes long, but you can hear a shorter version here).
At the end of the evening, all the artists crowded onstage for a spirited two-song encore that had the crowd out of their plush seats. First was “Bound for Glory,” then, of course, “This Land is Your Land,” during which Tom Morello encouraged the crowd to pogo along with him: “Everybody jump the f*** up.” Watching scruffy college kids and well-heeled septuagenarians bop along and sing Guthrie’s signature song, it’s not hard to imagine that Woody was looking down on the spectacle and smiling.
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