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Arlo Guthrie at Newport

Arlo Guthrie

Did you know Arlo Guthrie played Newport? Chances are, probably not. There was such a deafening hullabaloo surrounding Bob Dylan's appearance this year -- and for good reason -- that the din almost completely overshadowed Guthrie's headlining gig on the following day.

It's too bad. Because if I had to put the two sets head to head and pick a winner, I'd have a pretty tough time. While Dylan's possessed a gratifying intensity and reasonably good relevance and familiarity, it thoroughly lacked contact, communication, and warmth. Guthrie's set, on the other hand, possessed all of those things without the intensity. In fact, today Guthrie is all the things Dylan is not and has never been: sincere, funny, self-deprecating, and communicative.

Like Dylan, Guthrie came of age in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, just a couple of years later. Onstage, he joked about the time he was warned by a booking agent that he was playing the same night in the same city as Bob and there was a huge likelihood no one would show at gig. "Shoot, I could beat Bob at his own game," he told a reporter after hearing the news. "I've got all kinds of Dylan tunes I can play," he lied. That night the line was around the block for his show, and he rushed backstage to polish up on his Dylan.

The fact is, Guthrie has eaten Dylan's dust time and again. How many people know that Guthrie's classic "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" was performed in Newport in 1967? But hey, you can't really compare the effects of someone changing the face of pop music with someone who sang a shaggy dog story about the draft, no matter how good the tale was.

But let's compare the effect that each one had on the festival. Before his set, Bob had backstage almost entirely evacuated. Even the other performers had to stay put once Bob was about to hit the stage. It was nothing short of a paralyzed atmosphere, a Secret Service-like state of alert in sleepy little Newport. The Pope could have been in town the way security battened a forcefield around the guy. Hell, only Al Gore got close. Conclude what you will about that.

On the other hand, Guthrie and his son Abe pulled into the Fort in their own beat-up van, must've been 20 years old. Arlo, in all his gray-haired glory, was seen rubbing elbows backstage with lots of folks. At one point he was jabbering with John Gorka, Dar Williams, and up-and-comer Alice Peacock, more than likely sharing a humorous experience of some kind or other. The mood Sunday backstage was nice and laid-back, the way a folk festival should be. Folk music has always been about a sense of community, about inclusion, about the elimination of prides and prejudices.

When Guthrie took the stage Sunday evening, with the sun setting calmly over the harbor, the peace was palpable. While Bob wailed away the previous night, unsympathetic to the conditions or the situation or the significance of playing the Newport Folk Festival 37 years after altering the course of pop music, Arlo virtually did the job for him. He told stories about his songs -- especially "The Motorcycle Song" in which he said, "Do you believe I made a career out of singing a song that stupid? What could I have been thinking?" He reminisced with hilarity about himself, his style, his life, his career. Like Dylan, he didn't cave in to nostalgia -- meaning he didn't pull out "Alice" for another go-'round, but he did play the tune's opening chords, inciting instant applause. "Now, that could be any song of mine!" he scolded. Then he moved on. When he closed the set with a cover of his dad's "This Land Is Your Land," it was the high point of the festival, the kind of moment you could have pictured back in 1965, when folk music was by and for the people.

Dylan didn't once consider "the people" in 2002, in the same way he assaulted them with guitars 37 years ago. In fact, since 1965, Bob has distanced himself more and more from "the people" with each passing year. Guthrie considered those same "people" for his entire set, front to back. Perhaps it's time he emerged from Bob's shadow, just this once, and be recognized for it.

WANDERING EYE. Word has it that the rock-bustin' boys of Donnybrook are prepared to unleash a hailstorm of new songs on a slightly more suspecting public when they hit Lupo's on Friday night. Though they haven't signed on with a label, they're getting awfully close. Still, this new disc, consisting of a bunch of their patented crunching adventures -- I haven't heard it yet, is it obvious? -- will be a handy tool when it comes time for them to strut their tail feathers in front of a new batch of label executives. The show will also include high-decibel delivery guys shed, Melee, and Rip Wickit. Bring the plugs.

Barn Burning is playing at White Electric Coffee on Friday (the 9th), with Jedediah Parish and the Mother Tongues. Parish also does time in the Boss-tone outfit Gravel Pit. On Saturday (the 10th), M-80 will be performing an evening of Operation Ivy songs at the Met Cafe just for the hell of it. It's all ages, admission is $7, and the music starts at 9:30 p.m. sharp. Opening will be Glenn's Army and the Shakes.

In related, M-80 news, the band has nearly finished their new CD. They've been taking some time off to record and the focus is paying off. With new drummer Brian Bacon and new singer guitarist Jonny Safford (also with the Colonel and his Lucky Diamonds), the band is tighter than ever. CD will be out this fall.

Baylies Band is busy this weekend. On Friday, they'll do an improv set with hardcore bands Throwback, Big Bolt Deluxe, Mass Liberation, and Hemlock at the Safari. The show is free. On Saturday, they'll open at the Green Room, playing with all-girl noise
band Sawzall and the inspired Olneyville Sound System. Selections most likely will be from the band's new disc Suicide Notes From the Underground (March Is Wasted). On a related note, Eric Baylies of Baylies Band will be organizing a series of (hopefully) monthly shows around town billed as "Improv In Prov." He's looking for bands to do improv-only sets, which could be very cool. Anyone interested can call him at (508) 992-4952.

There's an Eyesores show on Saturday, and you know how much fun Mr. Redfearn and company can be. It'll be the band's only summer appearance. The Naysayer, featuring members of Retsin, as well as other special guests, will be on hand. If you wanna know the time and place, e-mail and ask nicely. Maybe you can buy Alec a 33rd birthday drink, which seems like a lot of drinks to me.

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Issue Date: August 9 - 15, 2002