John came out and said "This is the first time we've played here, so we're gonna stay a little longer'n usual." He played a full-on two hour set without taking a break, and his energy never flagged. I'd never seen him in concert before, and I'm so glad I got the chance. This was a man who's had hip replacement surgery, who beat throat cancer ten years ago, and he's putting on two solid hours of music. I was amazed. And jeez, does he know from versatile. He had two accompanists. One switched between an electric bass and a double bass, bowing and plucking the double when needed. The guitarist did some amazing stuff with a slide, had serious rockabilly chops, and even hit up a mandolin on occasion. Often the accompanists were switching instruments in the middle of songs. They managed to fill out arrangements in some amazing ways. The acoustic version of "Hello In There" with slide guitar and bowed bass was probably the most beautiful and melancholy arrangement I've heard. John switched between two acoustic guitars and a small electric for a brief portion, but there was some serious hum coming from that one. There was a Telecaster onstage that I kept waiting for someone to use, but nobody ever did.
At one point the accompanists took a break and John just kept playing, getting in gems like Dear Abby ("Bewildered, Bewildered, you have no complaint / You are who you are and you ain't what you ain't"). The accompanists didn't wait in between songs to come back onstage, they just walked on and started in as the grand tradition dictates (First verse: Singer on rhythm guitar. Second verse: Add the bass. Second chorus: Throw in the lead guitar. Win.)
Of course, no singer/songwriter worth his or her salt won't indulge in a little backstory every now and then, and John had a few good'uns to tell us. I think my favorite one involved an early piece of his (god I forget which one) that he said he wrote while driving down to his first regular gig. Problem was he was writing while on the road and his guitar was in the trunk. When he got to the gig he was worried that he'd come up with something too complicated to play. "In my mind it had jazz chords and all kinds of fancy flourishes and stuff." But when he got out the guitar and figured out the tune, "...turned out it was just the same three fuckin' chords I always use."
Good ol' G, C and D.
Speaking of G, C, and D, the opening act was Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, who had some fine tight harmonies bein' husband and wife and all. Sarah Lee is Arlo's daughter ("Which means you can probably figure out who my granddaddy is") and she mentioned a quote that Woody gave in a recorded interview so many years ago. I'll have to paraphrase it here. "When I play a song, I usually just play G and D," he said. "But every now and then I throw in a C to impress the ladies." I think this is one of my favorite quotes now.
Then there's the song John said he wrote to spite a record producer who insisted he add one more song to an album. "So I went back and I wrote the dumbest thing I could think of to show him no, I don't need an extra song." The song made it in. "And after singing it a couple hundred times, I kinda got to like it." The chorus goes like this:
Father, forgive us for what we must doHe played a lot of old standbys. Don't worry if you don't recognize any of these songs. Ask politely and I may help clue you in some day. He played stuff like Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Picture Show, Ain't Hurtin Nobody (playin it real dirty-like, oh god it was great), and Sam Stone. Spanish Pipedream opened the show, and he finished the set with an absolutely powerful version of Lake Marie. He actually ramped up the energy at the end of two hours and stomped that song out. It was incredible. One notable omission this evening was Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore, which has had renewed power since he wrote it during the Vietnam War. But I think I may have heard he'd had some audience trouble with the song. I can't remember.
You forgive us, and we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other til we both turn blue
Then we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven.
Tonight was a night of rich music, of acoustic country folk rock-like stories, and of one hell of a performer. He's seen a lot and done a lot and written a lot, and it was a treat just to listen to a familiar voice I've heard so often actually coming out of a fellow onstage. Just a great time.