On a technical level, Guthrie's solo show last night at the Hawaii Theatre Center was a perfect match of artist and venue. The large house has sparkling sound, an intimate view of the stage from every angle and grand surroundings. But nobody came for the technical splendor.
On an artistic level, Guthrie is, well, a thumpy guitarist and a wispy singer. He stuck mostly to a ringing flat-top box guitar, with occasional detours to a 12-string guitar and a piano, both of which he hammered on enthusiastically. But nobody came to hear a string wizard.
On a personal level, however, Guthrie connected with everyone in the house. They either grew up and then grew older with him, or his wryly common-sensical view of the petty humiliations and the hidden joys of modern times.
Guthrie is, after all, the poster child of the ' 60s, the baby-faced son of a rangy and somewhat forbidding musical legend - Woody Guthrie's guitar had a sticker on it that proclaimed "This Machine Kills Fascists!" - who grew up perplexed by authority figures and eager only to try new things and evade responsibilities.
Along the way (and no one would have guessed this at the time, much less divined a game plan), Guthrie became a leading voice of traditional "folk" music. He has done so through heartfelt interpretations of traditional melodies - including his father's - writing new music in the same vein and making a concert event seem as warm and intimate as a camp fire.
And simply by being Arlo. He played a caricature of the ancient hippie on the defunct TV program "The Byrds of Paradise," but Guthrie is not that two dimensional. He comes across as a guy who enjoys the rare and simple pleasures of life so much that he wants to sing about them. And he talks, and talks, and this is where rambling becomes an artistic statement.
He sings a few lines: "I don't want a pickle. I just wanna ride my motor-sickle," and the audience applauds like Beethoven just trotted out the Chorale.
Guthrie sighs, and says, "What a stupid song. I can't believe I've made a living out of singing that song. For decades."
"I love America!"
And then, with exquisite comic timing, Guthrie tells a rambling epic about the writing of that stupid song. The audience has heard it before, and loves it. This is the legendary mythos, the tall tales of the Woodstock Generation, and Guthrie taps into longing for belonging.
And so on. And so on. Eventually the song got played, only by then it was not just a song, it was an epic adventure.
After a short break, Guthrie dived directly into "Alice's Restaurant," and played it note-for-note and wisecrack-for-wisecrack, and a virtuoso performance it was, too. If you think it's easy finger-picking while telling an enormous story, try it sometime. He added a "historical footnote" in which it was revealed that the Nixon record library had a copy of "Alice's Restaurant," and the famous 18-minute, 20-second gap in the Nixon recordings exactly matched the length of "Alice." Draw your own conclusions.
The most affecting moment was when Guthrie sang his father's "This Land Is Your Land," argueably one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, and revealed that Woody made up verses on the spot to impress young Arlo.
Said Guthrie, "You know, when it's time to go - and many of my friends have gone - there's not a lot you can leave behind that actually means something, 'cept some old songs and favorite stories."