By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Guthrie Family, John Flynn, Cyril Neville, Kevn Kinney, Ramsay Midwood and the Burns Sisters
At the Vic Theatre
A pundit on a Sunday TV news program recently quoted a woman in a northeastern state who asked, "Why should I pay to rebuild New Orleans?" This was cited as an example of the disconnect felt by Americans outside the Deep South as to the relative importance of aiding in the reconstruction of a sacked American city. The program's panel offered several studious answers to her question — jazz heritage, oil flow, even the Louisiana Purchase was invoked — but no one got beyond business and politics. No one ever answered, "Because, ma'am, if you'd lost your home, I'd help you."
Most of the bandwagon benefit CDs, songs and concerts during the past three months have avoided that golden measure, as well. It's all for Mardi Gras, y'all! But leave it to the Guthrie family to gather together and remind us — by example — that family is a concept transcending bloodlines and borders.
If you think that's dreamy-eyed hippie idealism, fine. But truth be told, the heart of folk music beats underneath an old bumper sticker slogan: think globally, act locally. Don't try to save the whole world. Just do what you can where you are, or where you can go.
Arlo's latest such effort is the Ridin' on the City of New Orleans tour, which kicked off with Monday night's concert. For the next two weeks, Arlo and his "family" — actual offspring, such as son Abe and daughter Sarah Lee, plus numerous friends — will travel south from Chicago to New Orleans on the fabled train heralded in Chicagoan Steve Goodman's song (and Arlo's biggest hit) "The City of New Orleans." They'll be playing concerts along the way, raising money for musicians and music venues in the Crescent City.
Arlo threw together this tour, and Monday night's premiere — the costs of which, Arlo announced, were underwritten by comedian and Illinois native Richard Pryor — certainly appeared thrown together. The spirit was willing (and thrilling), but attendance was weak. It's starting just like a train, slow and clunky, but it shows every sign it'll roar into Memphis and New Orleans as a polished, shiny package.
Arlo's extended family on this night included John Flynn, singing shrill but amusing topical songs; Kevn Kinney of the Atlanta band Drivin' n' Cryin', turning in some intriguing, wide-open blues smoked by his hoarse, Jimmy LaFave wheeze; woozy, enigmatic Texas troubadour Ramsay Midwood, and the Burns Sisters, who awkwardly added harmonies to other acts' choruses throughout the night before delivering two a cappella numbers that elicited cheers and whoops from the pensive crowd.
Abe Guthrie's band Xavier performed its usual set of mediocre jam-band noodling (oy, the guitar solos). And though Sarah Lee Guthrie's set, with husband Johnny Irion, wasn't her best, her belting alt-country twang still shone as the most interesting new talent in Woody Guthrie's family.
Arlo emceed more than he performed, lending the headline spotlight to Cyril Neville, youngest of the Neville Brothers. After seven folk and blues acts, Neville strutted onstage in his black hat with red sequins and feather and presented a lively, albeit slightly rote, set of the rhythm and blues nurtured in the New Orleans venues Arlo's trying to save.
"There's no logic to it," Arlo had said earlier of the eclectic bill, and Neville's deep grooves clearly bewildered the timid folk support players — but people finally started dancing and clapping and getting their blood flowing. Neville climbed behind the drum kit for two songs, including an extended final jam, a tribute to New Orleans. "The storm ain't over, y'all," Neville reminded us.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.