This Land Is Your Land — The Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert
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By Crystal Larsen
"Tell the truth and it will set you free."
Those words, as sung by Graham Nash during the performance of "Almost Gone," were just some of the social justice sentiments shared during This Land Is Your Land — The Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert on April 14 at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Produced in part by the GRAMMY Museum, the event brought together some of folk and rock music's finest to pay tribute to one of America's most celebrated songwriters, Woody Guthrie, who this year would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
The star-studded evening was just part of the Museum's yearlong Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration, and featured a cast of musicians and artists who honored Guthrie's legacy.
Taking the stage to welcome the audience to Guthrie's SoCal birthday party was actor/musician Ronny Cox, who performed a spoken word version of Guthrie's "There's A Feeling In Music."
"Music is a tone of voice, the sound life uses to keep the living alive," he read. As Cox wrapped his piece, living proof that Guthrie's tone of voice is alive and well stepped onto the stage in the form of his granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, who kicked off the evening with Johnny Irion for a rendition of Woody's "California Stars." Saddled with his mandolin, the ubiquitous multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz joined the duo for "Union Maid," a song that Guthrie would often "get in trouble for singing."
Following was a performance of Guthrie's "Jesus Christ" by Joe Henry, who, to both my and the crowd's delight, was joined by Jackson Browne for a cover of "New York Town." It was here I got a taste of Guthrie's clever sense of humor, as the duo repeated his words, "I can buy more lovers than the Civil War set free."
Next up was California-based roots-rock five-piece Dawes, whose members were likely the youngest musicians to take the stage. Led by vocalist/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, the band performed a bluesy cover of "Goin' Down The Road," which featured Browne on background vocals.
"As a younger band, we're really honored to be here," said Goldsmith. "It shows what an impact Woody Guthrie still has on music today."
That impact shone as bright as ever during the following performances, which featured John Doe channeling Guthrie's anger over injustice on "Vigilante Man," and a cover of "Pastures Of Plenty" by pianist/composer Van Dyke Parks.
One of my personal highlights of the evening (of many) came next when the Nightwatchman himself, Tom Morello, took the stage for a killer performance in the name of Guthrie. Morello began on acoustic guitar and performed a cover of Guthrie's "Tom Joad" before his Freedom Fighter Orchestra joined him onstage for a louder, harsher arrangement of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." As Morello so candidly put it, Springsteen is the "only boss worth listening to." Morello's spine-tingling performance, complete with electric guitar tricks straight out of Jimi Hendrix's book, had me and the rest of the crowd at a standstill, until he was finished and the entire audience jumped to its feet.
As if the night could get any better, Morello said, "And that's not it," as he invited Dawes, Browne, Nash, and Parks to the stage for a rendition of "Ease My Revolutionary Mind," which put the crowd at anything but ease. "It's rare in my catalog ... that I endeavor in love songs," said Morello. "But with a revolutionary love battle like this I was willing to jump in the deep end."
"I need a social-conscious woman to ease my revolutionary mind," they sang. It was almost surreal to watch Morello wail away on guitar while Browne and Nash swayed along to the rhythm, all on one stage.
Following a brief intermission, GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli brought to stage one of the only ladies of the night, Guthrie's first wife, Mary Guthrie. "You can learn from him, believe me," she said.
The night continued with performances by Joel Rafael with Nash and Kris Kristofferson, with the latter two performing a cover of "(Deportee) Plane Wreck At Los Gatos," a song Guthrie penned in protest to what he considered the racist mistreatment of the victims of a 1948 plane crash in California's Los Gatos Canyon. Taking the stage again was Browne, this time for a solo set, including a soothing rendition of "You Know The Night" with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion, followed by "Which Side Are You On?" — a song inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Next up was arguably the most legendary act to take the stage that night; the only gentleman in a cowboy hat; and, in his way, the most demanding — 80-year-old Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Elliott began and stopped his performance two different times — once to ask the crowd not to take any pictures (or else he'll forget all the words) and again to ask the technicians to turn off the lyric teleprompter. "I've been singing these songs for 60 years," he said. Elliott then performed a perfect rendition of a song about an Oklahoma outlaw, "Pretty Boy Floyd."
Speaking of his late friend, Elliott said, "Woody wanted to be remembered as the guy who told you what you already know." And what is one thing we can all say we've learned from Guthrie? That this land was made for you and me.
Taking the stage one last time were all of the night's performers for a sing-along rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" — America's "alternative national anthem" as Morello put it.
"History's not made by presidents or popes," Morello said. "It's about what you do or fail to do that will determine the type of world we live in." And as the song came to a driving finish, Morello demanded that the entire crowd "jump the f*** up" in celebration of an artist who told the truth.
"There's A Feeling In Music" — Ronny Cox
"California Stars" — Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion
"Union Maid" — Lee Guthrie, Irion
"Jesus Christ" — Joe Henry
"New York Town" — Jackson Browne, Henry
"Hard Travelin'" — Dawes
"Goin' Down The Road" — Browne, Dawes
"A Little Bit Of Everything" — Dawes (original song)
"Vigilante Man" — John Doe
"Do Rei Mi" — John Doe, Val McCallum, Cindy Wasserman
"So Long It's Been Good To Know Yuh" — Doe, McCallum, Wasserman
"Pastures Of Plenty" — Van Dyke Parks
"Tom Joad" — Tom Morello
"The Ghost Of Tom Joad" — Morello (Bruce Springsteen cover)
"Ease My Revolutionary Mind" — Browne, Dawes, Morello, Graham Nash, Parks
"I Hate A Song" — Cox
"Ramblin' Reckless Hobo" — Rafael
"Your Sandal String" — Joel Rafael
"Sierra Blanca Massacre" — Browne, Nash, Rafael
"(Deportee) Plane Wreck At Los Gatos" — Kris Kristofferson, Nash, Rafael
"Here Comes That Rainbow Again" — Kristofferson (original song)
"Ramblin' Round" — Henry, Kristofferson
"Almost Gone (The Ballad Of Bradley Manning)" — Nash (original song)
"You Know The Night" — Browne, Lee Guthrie, Irion
"Which Side Are You On?" — Browne (original song)
"1913 Massacre" — Ramblin' Jack Elliott
"Pretty Boy Floyd" — Elliott
"Another Man's Done Gone" — Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion
"Be No Church Tonight" — Browne, Lee Guthrie, Irion, Nash, Rafael
"This Train Is Bound For Glory" — Browne, Dawes, Doe, Lee Guthrie, Henry, Irion, Kristofferson, Morello, Nash, Rafael, Wasserman
"This Land Is Your Land" — Browne, Dawes, Doe, Elliott, Lee Guthrie, Henry, Irion, Kristofferson, Morello, Nash, Rafael, Wasserman