The Spirit of Guthrie Tour :: 03.30.05 :: The Pour House Music Hall :: Raleigh, NC
"This machine kills fascists."
Woody Guthrie wrote these words on his guitar, and he wasn't kidding. Undoubtedly the most important folk singer in history, he set his sights high, aiming his music to affect social change, political justice, and personal freedom. He was one of the first to write songs that truly mattered – songs with a conscience, songs with a tale to tell, songs that were pissed off. The entire image of the American protest folk singer comes from Woody Guthrie, and he meant every word of it.
The Spirit of Guthrie Tour assembled an all-star cast to salute the folk master, featuring the elastic guitar and mandolin playing of Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon, the endlessly imaginative acoustic and electric bass stylings of Rob Wasserman, and the folky, improv-laden leanings of guitarist Jim Page. Also joining in for the majority of the show was opening act Theresa Andersson on hyperkinetic fiddle and guitar. Playing a mixture of Guthrie tunes, their own originals, and improvised pieces, the tour often featured solo pieces as well, though on this night they opted to play mostly as a quartet. Guthrie's fertile mind produced literally thousands of songs, many of which were never recorded and exist today only as lyrics. Herman, Wasserman, and Page also composed and improvised new music to go alongside some of these unpublished lyrics, much as Billy Bragg and Wilco did on their 1998 album Mermaid Avenue and its sequel Vol. 2. The idea behind this tour, however, was to honor Guthrie's spirit through a mixture of his own songs as well as originals by the musicians inspired by him.
Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie came to prominence as a songwriter in the 1940's. His powerful vocals, catchy guitar licks, and howling harmonica perfectly underscored his fiercely independent lyrics and unbreakable commitment to the common folk. He traveled the country and worked the land, and his music is imbibed with a melodic sensibility and turbulent sense of motion mirroring the stories he sang of Dust Bowl farmers, union workers, the disenfranchised, and the left-behind. His most famous song is "This Land is Your Land," ironically honored today as a patriotic opus, though written in its time as a leftist response to the over-the-top flag-waving of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." The verses sung by grade-schoolers are innocent enough, but you should see what the teachers left out. Guthrie didn't mince words, and he didn't care much to give his time away to empty slogans. He could see with his own eyes what was happening to the people in his country, and he didn't want the airwaves filled with propaganda. More likely to be found performing at a union rally than a concert hall, he also expressed himself as an author, newspaper columnist, and artist. He also served in the military during World War II.
Spirit of Guthrie :: 03.30.05 :: Raleigh, NC
(l to r)Herman, Wasserman, Andersson, Page by K.Wiles
The Spirit of Guthrie Tour opened its Raleigh show with a solo set from Theresa Andersson, whose textural vocals, howling falsettos, and mystic banshee wails perfectly offset her delicate guitar and fiddle playing. When she later returned to join the headliners, her fiddle seemed to drip pure honey into the air. The main act took the stage and sang a song about the Pour House itself, with Jim Page making up lyrics on the fly. The band slammed straight into Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" to kick off the show proper, belting out the words with the tempo rushing by like a raging river. "I've been hittin' some hard-rock minin', I thought you knowed / I've been leanin' on a pressure drill, way down the road / Hammer flyin', air-hole suckin', six foot of mud and I shore been a muckin' / And I've been hittin' some hard travelin', Lord." It was old-time meets jazz improv as Vince Herman's guitar and Rob Wasserman's bass both blasted into rollicking, energetic solos.
Spirit of Guthrie :: 03.30 :: Raleigh, NC
Jim Page by Katherine Wiles
Page grabbed center stage again for a run through his own "Heroes and Survivors" before making up a song about the tour's stop in North Carolina. While Guthrie's lyrics could cut to the bone, he also had a lighthearted side that came out on several children's albums he recorded. In that spirit, Herman offered up his own "Fuzzy Little Hippy Girl," a song that probably needs little further explanation to most of the readers of this site. The next song led into a fierce acoustic jam including both Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" before they invited Andersson back onstage to join them for the rest of the show. With her plaintive fiddle floating over top, they glided into "Pastures of Plenty," Guthrie's classic tale of travels and travails. "It's always we rambled, that river and I / All along your green valley, I will work till I die / My land I'll defend with my life if it be / Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free."
They continued with "Jesus Christ," another song where Guthrie felt no need to mince words. "Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land / A hard-working man and brave / He said to the rich, 'Give your money to the poor' / But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave." Page's melodic "Stranger in Me" led into a sing-along honoring Wasserman's bass. Seizing the lighthearted moment, they continued with the bizarre traditional a cappella tune "Paddy Doyle's Boots" and a silly song by Page honoring bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. A spirited rendition of Tim O'Brien's "Wandering" descended into a haunting, eerily quiet duet between the fiddle and bowed bass. The music hovered between delicate darkness and jagged experimental noise as the classical bass undertones lent a lumbering yet serene sway to the tide. An uplifting original by Andersson followed, featuring her deeply expressive voice as well as Wasserman's trademark juicy, round bass tone.
Spirit of Guthrie :: 03.30.05 :: Raleigh, NC
Wasserman & Andersson by K.Wiles
Page's "Over My Dead Body" perfectly encapsulated the Guthrie spirit, with lyrics leaving little to the imagination. "They have all the money but we have the will / And I would rather be a match than a paper dollar bill / They say they will incorporate the world / Over my dead body." He continued with a song about the darker sides of the American race, touching on current events with a refreshing starkness and candor. "There's something about us we don't want to have to face / There's a killer instinct in this American race." They fired things back up for Guthrie's eternal "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad," originally known as "Blowing Down That Old Dusty Road," tearing through the timeless groove with high-speed heartfelt guitar and fiddle solos. "Naked Underneath Your Clothes," a song Page has joined Leftover Salmon to play in the past, featured fanciful fiddling deep within the heavy rhythm.
Spirit of Guthrie :: 03.30 :: Raleigh, NC
Vince Herman by K.Wiles
The set rolled on with another Salmon tune called "Woody Guthrie," whose beautiful, plaintive melody served as the perfect theme song for the evening. "Hey Woody Guthrie where are you / We could sure use you once more / Hey Woody Guthrie where are you / The big dogs are back at the door." They followed with another improv number about the venue itself ("How many of you are here tonight?") and a quick jam on Bill Hicks' "Play 'Rocky Top'" before wrapping up the set with a rousing version of "This Land is Your Land," complete with some of their own brand new verses and an inspirational fiddle break from Andersson.
They returned for the encore, treating the traditional shanty "Shawneetown" with sublimely harmonized vocals and elegantly picked guitars. The band proceeded to wrap the evening up with "So Long It's Been Good To Know Yuh," one of Guthrie's sweetly sad ballads describing the dust storms of the '30s. "A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder / It dusted us over, an' it covered us under / Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun / Straight for home all the people did run / Singin' 'So long, it's been good to know yuh.'" To a folk singer like Woody Guthrie, well you just had to speak the truth and hope that people would hear you. These days, there's no one quite like him, and there probably never will be. But thanks to him, the world is still hearing music and wisdom - through his son Arlo Guthrie, that Zimmerman kid from Minnesota, and millions more who will someday catch his spirit. As Jim Page sang in "Over My Dead Body," "You can call me a fool, that's alright with me / But I will live to see this good round world breaking free."
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