Various Artists: Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center

woody guthrie at 100

Videos by American Songwriter

Various Artists
Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At the Kennedy Center
Legacy Recordings
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

2012 marked the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birthday and his centennial was celebrated from “California to the New York Island.” This live CD/DVD comes from a concert performed at Washington D.C.’s august Kennedy Center.

The concert, which was shown on PBS in a shortened version, provides a vivid mosaic of Woody Guthrie’s work. The set-list includes well-known Guthrie tunes (like Ani DiFranco’s tenderly poignant “Deportee” and the still all-too-pertinent “I Ain’t Got No Home,” which Rosanne Cash described as just about a perfect song) along with more recently uncovered material (such as “You Know the Night,” a Guthrie love letter transformed into a song). As Judy Collins stated from the stage, “Woody wrote about everything. He wrote about his life, about love, about politics.” This range might be best exemplified here by Jimmy LaFave’s rough-hewn “Hard Travelin’” being followed by Donovan’s lighthearted take on the children’s tune “Riding In My Car.”

While the lineup, not surprisingly, featured a number of guitar-strumming troubadours (from the folk empress Collins to Woody’s buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Guthrie disciple Joel Raphael), the concert also revealed how Guthrie’s songs could be blended into different musical styles. The Del McCoury Band put the “high lonesome” into “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” while Lucinda Williams, in “House of Earth,” turned the Guthrie lyrics into one of her gritty, bluesy numbers. The vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock’s stirring gospel rendition of “I’ve Got To Know” stands as a concert highlight. Tom Morello’s impassioned take on “Ease My Revolutionary Mind” is another memorable performance. Backed by  Freedom Fighter Orchestra, Morello sounds somewhat like a rock ‘n’ roll Leonard Cohen. He also added in some apt lyrical updates (“I need a Weather Underground woman/I need a Zapatista woman/Ain’t no a Fox News Watching Female Can Ease My Revolutionary Mind”) to this “revolutionary love song.”

 As would be expected, the concert closed with those two Guthrie classics: “This Train Is Bound For Glory” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Yet the performances, done with all the musicians crowded on stage, make for joyful, moving moments (particularly when Morello, during “This Land” exhorts the audiences to participate). These all-star sing-alongs also are instances where being able to see it performed on the DVD tops just listening to it on the CD. The DVD also includes some interesting song introductions and Jeff Daniels reading two selections of Guthrie’s writing, which aren’t on the music-focused CD.

While arguments could be made over the absence of such Guthrie-associated acts as Billy Bragg, Wilco and Steve Earle (not to mention Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan), this is always the case with these tributes. There is no argument, however, that this concert clearly celebrates Guthrie’s contributions to American music, culture and history as well as demonstrates that his songs remain relevant today.

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