To celebrate the holiday and the four-day weekend it’s given us, I present you with a concert from the man who wrote one of the top two or three 18-minutes-and-counting Thanksgiving/anti-war songs ever — Arlo Guthrie.
Of course, Arlo didn’t play “Alice’s Restaurant” at Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park on July 21, 1979; it was a summer concert, after all. (However, fans of his musical storytelling should get a kick out of the significance of the pickle in “The Motorcycle Song.”) Presented as part of the Dr Pepper Central Park Music Festival, which ran from 1977 to 1980, the show is divided into sections, with a few songs in a row written by Arlo’s dad, Woody Guthrie; a few songs from Arlo’s then-current album, Outlasting the Blues; and a song or two concerning the cause célèbre of the time, No Nukes.
Professional protesters like Guthrie had a problem in the late ’70s: the Vietnam war was over and Nixon was long gone from the White House. Fortunately, Jane Fonda, the queen of left-wing celebrity politics at the time, was the star of The China Syndrome, a fictional account of a nuclear power-plant accident that debuted in theaters on March 16, 1979. Twelve days later (close enough to raise an eyebrow if you’re into conspiracy theories) a stuck water valve at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania scared the Birkenstocks off a certain segment of society, and thus the No Nukes movement was born.
All through the summer of ’79, New York City was the epicenter of the movement. There were No Nukes shows all over the place, concluding with a series of concerts at Madison Square Garden in September.
Although Guthrie’s Central Park show wasn’t an official No Nukes event, he supported the cause, playing a song entitled “No More Nukes” and reworking the 100-year-old ballad “Acres of Clams” to fit the end-of-the-’70s protest environment. Personally, I think his lyrics for “Acres of Clams” are a little over-the-top, but the performances of Guthrie and his backing band are what really stand out in this show.
The band, a bunch of musicians from western Massachusetts who called themselves Shenandoah (not the pop-country band from the late ’80s), is freaking awesome. First off, they can sing — just listen to the opening gospel number, “Daniel Prayed,” and you’ll be impressed. Plus, each member of Shenandoah takes a turn at lead vocals during “Acres of Clams,” with not a single clunker in the bunch.
In 1979 Shenandoah consisted of David Grover on lead guitar, Judy Lunstet on bass, Carol Ide on percussion, Steve Ide on guitar and keyboards, and Terry “A La Berry” Hall on drums. It sounds like the band switched instruments several times during the show, so you’ll hear organ, piano, trombone, clarinet — all sorts of groovy things.
And did I mention all of them can sing?
A highlight of the Central Park concert is Shenandoah’s twin guitar solo on “Which Side” — it’s no Wishbone Ash, but nobody was expecting that sort of thing at an Arlo Guthrie concert anyway — and the classic “Coming Into Los Angeles” is turned into a pretty nice slab of rock ‘n’ roll.
So step back in time and enjoy this slice of quaint protest history, with one of the better backing bands you’ll ever hear. And if you really want to get nostalgic for a more innocent time, consider this: ticket prices for Guthrie’s 7/21/79 gig were just $4.50 (orchestra) and $2.50 (balcony).
Sailing Down My Golden River
Acres of Clams
No More Nukes
City of New Orleans
My Daddy (Flies a Ship in the Sky)
Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
This Land Is Your Land
St. Louis Tickle
The Motorcycle Song
Coming Into Los Angeles
Meeting at the Building