CHICAGO — Arlo Guthrie’s father, Woody Guthrie, had a message written on his guitar that stated, “This machine kills fascists.” If there was a message on Arlo’s guitar Monday night (Dec. 5) in Chicago, it would’ve been, “This machine brings hope.”
Guthrie kicked off his Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans tour with “House of the Rising Sun.” And the music didn’t stop until three hours later when he was joined by 12 other artists for “City of New Orleans,” his 1972 hit written by the late Steve Goodman. Hundreds of fans crowded into the Vic Theatre, ready to help Guthrie on his mission to bring instruments and gear to the musicians and music venues that lost so much during Hurricane Katrina.
On the 926-mile journey to New Orleans, Guthrie will be bringing fans a cross-country blend of folk, rock, country, jazz, reggae and blues. “Tonight’s about music from all over,” he explained. “It’s not all in neat little boxes.”
Without going into an all-out government protest, Guthrie lightly touched on some of the political reasons for being there. “All these people here tonight have put aside their differences to help with the natural disasters and the disasters we have created ourselves,” he said.
Everything about the night was very casual, just like you’d expect at a folk festival. One artist stopped mid-song to move the capo on his guitar. Guthrie had to have his son come over and help him figure out how to make the keyboards work. And when someone shouted to Guthrie that he needed drink, he yelled back he’d take a Scotch. (The fan brought him one onstage.) Later on, when his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, came out, a fan yelled, “Nobody doesn’t like Sarah Lee.” Arlo responded, “You realize you’re talking to her dad, bud?”
Cyril Neville, the youngest of the Neville Brothers, turned the show up a notch with his energetic funk sound, honoring the musical roots of his native New Orleans. His set started with “Fire on the Bayou” and “Ain’t No Funk Like Louisiana Funk.” Then he dedicated “Sister Rosa” to all the strong women who stand up for what they believe in. He dedicated another song to “our friends at FEMA.” At the end of his set, he made reference to the New Orleans club that has served as the Neville Brothers’ musical home. “How many of you ever been to Tipitina’s?” he asked the audience. “We gotta keep that in the world.”
Kevn Kinney and his band, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, started their set with a couple of blues songs. Then he had Sarah Lee and her husband, Johnny Irion, join him on what he called “a country song.” Sure enough, the chorus included the requisite reference to Johnny and June Carter Cash.
When it was Sarah Lee and Irion’s turn to take the stage, she proved herself every bit a third-generation Guthrie. She sang like an angel, played guitar effortlessly and spent some time on the keyboards. Irion, who became a Guthrie by marriage, did just fine with his vocals, guitar work and storytelling. But it was the way they performed together that made their collaboration seem so natural. After performing three of their own songs, they shared one from family friend Pete Seeger. The lyrics of the song, “Take It From Dr. King,” seemed to echo the mission to bring the music back to New Orleans: “Songs gave them courage to believe they would not fail.”
There were moments during the show when it was hard to tell whose band was whose. Abe played keyboards with his own band, Xavier, then kept right on playing during the other sets, including performances by singer-songwriters Ramsay Midwood and John Flynn.
“They don’t let me emcee many things because I kind of get lost up here,” Arlo said between sets. His self-depreciating, stream-of-consciousness ways went a long way with the fans who had waited in the freezing cold Windy City weather to see him.
Tuesday night (Dec. 6), at 8 p.m., the musicians will depart Chicago on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train, making benefit concert stops in three Illinois cities — Kankakee, Carbondale and Effingham — before heading to Memphis. The train trip ends in New Orleans on Dec. 15. The final concert, set for Dec. 17 at Tipitina’s, will feature an appearance by Willie Nelson.