By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
"When I get on stage I can relate this whole big world
that I've absorbed to the audience."

All about Arlo

He’s plain folk with a social conscience

By Tim Ryan

IS being Arlo Guthrie difficult?

There's the legacy of his father, Woody Guthrie, to contend with; there's the whole

"Alice's Restaurant" folklore; there's the image of the hippie-dippy Arlo.

"It's hard to be the one that's not real, the Arlo that's put in movies, or the Arlo that people perceive as me, otherwise being me is great. I like being me," he says.

Guthrie is in Hawaii for a weekend of concerts, including one Sunday in Honolulu. His last performance here was more than 20 years ago - when Linda Ronstadt opened for him.

Not only has Guthrie inherited his dad's musical talents but the elder's wandering genes, touring about 10 months a year. But unlike most artists, Arlo doesn't hate touring, seeing it as a strategic part of the creative process.

"It's not that I enjoy being away but it's simply part of my life and I really enjoy my life," he says during an interview at an off-the-beach Waikiki hotel. "I love seeing friends along the way; love seeing this country, driving along and watching a sunset or sunrises or stretches of fields or stands of trees."

Arlo compares himself to "an old shaman" that must keep traveling and stepping outside of the norm to be able to take people on a journey.

"When I get on stage I can relate this whole big world that I've absorbed to the audience. You touch the mythical sense of who people are ... which we like to have touched once in while."

Like his dad, Arlo has carved out a career as a folk singer and songwriter with a social conscience who leavens political messages with humor. He learned to play guitar at age 6 and by his late teens was performing in coffee houses.

Arlo's early fame was based on his anti-establishment shaggy dog story in song, "Alice's Restaurant," a comic monologue about the singer's troubles with the police and the draft board that was extremely timely when it appeared on record in 1967. He played himself in the successful film of the same name in 1969.

The "Alice's Restaurant" album was Guthrie's only gold record but he made a series of folk rock records through the 1970s, filling them with his own songs and those of his contemporaries, notably Steve Goodman's "The City of New Orleans," which became Guthrie's sole hit in 1972.

"When you're 18 and making a lot of money, you're on top of the world," he said, recalling the days when his star shone brightest. "But you have to understand that this stuff doesn't last forever.

"Philosophically, I never forgot that I was brought up to be a regular person. You can have all the good things and still not be lookin' down on people."

So legacy again comes up.

"I carry the weight of the family I grew up in," he said. "I know you can't just be sitting back in your own private world and do nothing. You still gotta help."

He and his wife of 30 years are involved in numerous organizations that assist the poor, aged and ill, especially those with AIDS. He performs at numerous fund-raising concerts.

Guthrie's commercial fortunes, like those of most folkies, declined by the end of the 1970s. He made his last album for Warner Bros. in 1981. Since then he's launched his own label, Rising Son, which has reissued his Warner albums and released his new recordings, including his latest, "The Mystic Journey," his first album of original songs in 10 years.

He's appearing more in television programs, most recently episodes of "Renegade" and "Relativity."

That all started with a recurring role in the Hawaii-based "The Byrds of Paradise." His six months in Hawaii for "Byrds" gave this rambler a sense of stability after three decades on the road.

"I hadn't been in one place for six months since I left high school. I started learning people's names in the store and could even notice food prices going up and down."

But it was the sense of family with his "Byrd" co-workers that touched Arlo's soul.

"I made lifelong friends and really miss that."

Guthrie, just a few months shy of his 50th birthday and with four children and two grandchildren, has matured into the leading edge of the still-vital "folk" tradition. He says he builds on the gifts of Pete Seeger and his dad, combining traditional songs and original material with plenty of audience-friendly storytelling.

On "The Mystic Journey" Guthrie sings in a voice reminiscent of and far more understandable than that of Bob Dylan. A third of his concert audience is under 25; another third are his dad's peers who are in their 70s.

Does he feel in competition with his father's legacy or, perhaps, intimidated by it?

"No," he says, his eyes narrowing and becoming a bit misty. "I'll tell you this: If my dad hadn't been my dad and I lived half way around the world and only knew of him what I read and heard, I would have admired and respected him for what he was as a human being, his philosophies, and his humanity.

"Now that's the hard thing to live up to."

In concert

Who: Arlo Guthrie
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Hawaii Theatre
Cost: $20-$24
Tickets: Hawaii Theatre box office, 528-0506; Connection outlets; by phone, 545-4000

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