Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"

Artist: Arlo Guthrie
Album: Alice's Restaurant
Year: 1967
Label: Reprise

While some may think otherwise, the fact of the matter is, having a musically famous parent rarely ensures success of the child. There are countless examples of the offspring of a music legend falling short of expectations and forever living the their parents' shadow. Most of the time, this is due to the child attempting the same style of music and making the direct comparisons completely unavoidable. However, from time to time, regardless of the circumstances, a second generation musical artist can stake their own claim and earn their own accolades. Being the child of arguably the most important musical figure of the last century, certainly puts one at an immediate disadvantage, but Arlo Guthrie far exceeded expectations and became a musical icon in his own right. As one of the central figures of the late 1960's folk movement, Arlo took the anti-establishment spirit of his father, and infused it into the more "peace-centric" and mellow vibe of the time. Many of Arlo Guthrie's songs have become American classics alongside the songs of his father, and he has also made a name for himself as one of the most unique live performers of his generation. With a number of hit songs over the past four decades, few artists of the 1960's folk movement have had as long and as successful a career as Guthrie, and he still records and performs to this day. Releasing more than twenty albums thus far, there is little question that his most endearing and enduring work comes from his debut release, 1967's iconic Alice's Restaurant.

Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a modern song that is more synonymous with a single day then Alice's Restaurant's iconic and ironic title track. It is ironic in the fact that the song is as much of an anti-war song as has ever been written, yet it has become a radio staple every year as the Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in the U.S. The song, properly titled "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is a talking blues which recounts the actual events that befell Guthrie on Thanksgiving Day, 1965. The facts and characters in the story are all real, from the church to Alice's Restaurant, to Guthrie being rejected from the draft, and of course, the twenty-seven high by ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows (and yes, the judge was in fact blind). Though some of the details of the events are somewhat exaggerated for comical and satirical effect, the base of the song centers around the idea that "any" person convicted of a crime in the United States (at the time) could find themselves "not fit" to be sent into the Vietnam War. The way in which Guthrie crafts the amusing story, yet infuses it with plenty of anti-war undertones evokes the spirit of his father, yet Guthrie's less aggressive, more humorous spin is what makes him a star on his own. Clocking in at nearly twenty minutes, the few flubs Guthrie made during the live recording give the song its authenticity, and along with one or two other songs, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" truly defines an entire generation.

Though Alice's Restaurant gains its fame from the title track, the other songs on the album are equally as fantastic, and one cannot overlook their power. The remaining six songs on the record total in time less than the title track, yet the impact is just as strong, and it is on these songs that Guthrie cements his place as one of the finest folk singers in history. It is also within these songs that Arlo Guthrie exposes the rest of his personality and proves to me one of the most eccentric figures of his generation. Presenting a song that is a brilliant juxtaposition between the folk sound and one of the most "un-folk" themes, Alice's Restaurant features another of Guthrie's most enduring songs, "The Motorcycle Song." Though the lyrics are certainly more on the "silly" side of things, the feeling of freedom and Guthrie's love for his motorbike come through clearly. To this day, one cannot avoid singing along to the song, and his beautiful, yet meaningful songs are the true gift that Arlo Guthrie gave to the world. From more fast tempo folk songs to gorgeous, slow ballads, Guthrie is truly perfect on every song, and his mastery for perfectly capturing a mood is perhaps no more apparent then on the brilliant "Chilling Of The Evening." While the lyrics themselves are more of a love song, Guthrie manages to give the song an amazing mood, which feels more like a cool evening stroll on an empty small-town street. All seven of the songs on Alice's Restaurant are fantastic, and it remains one of the most powerful debut albums ever recorded.

From his beautiful melodies to his fantastic lyrics to his truly perfect voice, in many ways, Arlo Guthrie is the ideal folk singer. His vocal range is normally in the lower registers, yet he has no problem taking on the higher notes, and does this often for emphasis. The tenor with which he sings is very raw and honest, and Guthrie's songs give the listener the feeling as if he is sitting in the same room. This musical intimacy is one of the most difficult things to accomplish on record, yet Guthrie pulls it off in a seemingly effortless manner. Adding to the wonderful mood of his music, Guthrie's songs have an overall uplifting and light feeling, and even when he is addressing heavier subjects, there is always a brilliant play on words or a certain sound in his voice that keeps things from getting into a "down" mood. This is one of the key aspects to his place high above other folk singers, as Guthrie is a true entertainer and clearly understands that it is not just "what" the story is, but much more in how the story is told. As a storyteller, Guthrie knows few equals, and to this day, his live performances remain some of the most enjoyable and entertaining shows of any artist of any genre. Any single aspect of Arlo Guthrie's musical prowess would be enough to make a single artist successful, yet Guthrie has the great voice, and the superb writing ability and stage presence that makes him a true icon in the world of music.

With one of the most impressive musical pedigrees possible, the fact that Arlo was able to step out of the shadow of his father and create his own place in music is a feat that is rarely accomplished, even by the children of less significant artists. Whether it is his subtle humor, his mesmerizing voice, or the fantastic songs which he writes, there have truly been very few artists in history as talented as Arlo Guthrie. Perfectly representing everything that it meant to be a folk artist in the 1960's, Guthrie's songs are a balance between fighting the system and beautiful tales of a simple life. His songs create some of the most vivid images of any performer ever, and the scenes that he paints run the gamut from beautiful to hilarious. Along with his instantly recognizable voice, Arlo Guthrie's light, humorous approach to his songs is one of the key aspects that has made him into a music legend. Arlo Guthrie's debut record was a massive success, largely due to the monumental title track, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." A song that is truly timeless, it is one of the most famous stories of all time, yet the underlying anti-war theme is often overlooked. Presenting such a massive undertaking on his debut record instantly made him one of the most in-demand artists in the country, and as the decade came to a close, he gave the world even more amazing songs, as well as some of the most memorable live performances in history. Though every song in the Guthrie catalog should be cherished, there is a special feel to Arlo Guthrie's 1967 debut album, Alice's Restaurant, and it remains one of the greatest and most important musical efforts in history.

Standout tracks: "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," "Chilling Of The Evenging," and "The Motorcycle Song."

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