Arlo Guthrie didn't perform "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" Saturday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, but the song, in a way, was there in spirit.
Guthrie's signature tune from 1967 (better known simply as "Alice's Restaurant") works partly as music and partly as stand-up comedy; most of its 18-plus minutes consist of a rambling yarn about Guthrie's arrest for littering and how his criminal record saved him from going to Vietnam. The Barclay show, titled "Arlo Guthrie: Here Comes the Kid," followed a similar format: plenty of tunes and plenty of talking.
In fact, if the show had consisted of nothing but Guthrie perched on his footstool, tuning his guitar strings and tossing off stories, it would have been entertaining enough. In two or so hours, the Kid regaled the audience with accounts of his Kidhood and beyond — spying on his father, Woody Guthrie, as he wrote songs, hanging out with Lead Belly, reveling in the 1960s counterculture and more.
"Well, you're still here," Guthrie said upon returning to the stage after intermission. Given the amount of history alone onstage, its doubtful many would have skipped out early.
But on musical terms, too, the show was a treat, as Guthrie, backed only by his own guitar or piano, breathed life into a century's worth of American popular music. The "Here Comes the Kid" tour, which started last year, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, and the first half of the Barclay set offered a plethora of Woody tunes, with the jaunty "Do Re Mi" and the mournful "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" among the highlights.
The latter song, about a crash that claimed the lives of dozens of immigrant laborers, inspired a particularly moving footnote from Guthrie: The victims of the accident, who, to Woody's chagrin, were labeled simply as "deportees" in the mainstream media in 1948, will soon be memorialized with a plaque bearing their names.
Hearing that story, as well as the one that introduced "1913 Massacre" (an account of a slaying of copper miners and their families in Michigan, where, Guthrie said, he's met descendants of the victims), served as a reminder of the true value of folk music. Often, traditional songs pay tribute to nameless people; just as often, their authors are anonymous as well. Through performers like the Guthries, their ideas pass on through the decades.
The second half of the show concentrated more on the younger Guthrie's catalog, which included not just the classics ("Coming into Los Angeles," which he famously sang at Woodstock, and the Steve Goodman-penned hit "City of New Orleans") but also a couple of off-the-wall delights: the darkly comic "Me and My Goose," which would fit snugly on a "Weird Al" Yankovic album, and the children's poem "Mooses Come Walking."
Sporting long, curly gray hair and clad in dark colors, Guthrie looked every bit the seasoned troubadour he is, and his nasal tenor has held up remarkably with time. Such was the eclectic nature of "Here Comes the Kid" that Guthrie dipped into folk history even further back than his father's work: the night's covers included the 1930s ballad "Old Shep" and the standard "St. James Infirmary Blues," which Guthrie noted that he learned from his father's longtime musical partner, Cisco Houston.
Barely a song went by Saturday without a long foreword or afterword, and only on a couple of occasions did the talking overpower the music. Guthrie prefaced "The Motorcycle Song" with a hilarious shaggy-dog story about a man whose quest to ride his cycle in the house resulted in multiple calls to the paramedics — but unfortunately, the introduction was much funnier than the slight song, which lacked the bounce of the rendition from his 1967 debut album.
The most disappointing performance of the night was Woody Guthrie's signature tune, "This Land Is Your Land," which came second to last. While its author's son can be forgiven for toying with a song that's been played countless times over the years, the version at the Barclay, which featured severely truncated lyrics and an overlong spoken section in the middle, fell short of being the rouser it could have been.
When Guthrie bowed after that number, it felt like a tepid note to close the evening — but when he returned a moment later, jokingly declaring that "the show is officially over," he ended gracefully with "My Peace," a song whose melody he wrote to lyrics found after his father's death. For the first time in the show, Guthrie called on the audience to sing along, and the tune's simple optimism ("My peace, my peace is all I've got / that I can give to you") resounded with so many voices, both famous and nameless, to power it through.