By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
There are no heightened expectations for a folk singer emeritus. Just being onstage oozing all that history and aura means almost everything when you've accomplished as much as Pete Seeger, and you're 87, and your voice has taken to acting its age.
During Thursday's Woody Guthrie tribute concert at the sold-out Birchmere, it mattered little how Seeger sounded (tremulous, if you must know) as he performed a handful of his old friend's songs, including "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and the encore, "This Land Is Your Land," in both solo and group formations. There was great value in simply seeing Seeger one more time, hearing him talk about Guthrie and basking in his powerful presence.
While his voice has seen better days, Seeger remains an expert storyteller who can summon dates, anecdotes and songs with remarkable ease. He has something of an encyclopedic mind when it comes to music and Guthrie's life, and he's also an encyclopedia entry unto himself -- one of the most significant artist-activists in 20th-century American music. No wonder, then, that he received multiple standing ovations, the first simply for showing up.
The concert opened as a hootenanny: 13 musicians crowded onto the stage, performing the rhythmic stomp of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin,' " with Seeger standing at the center, picking his banjo.
But he soon took a back seat, sitting at the rear of the stage as various acts took turns performing two songs apiece, almost all of them from Guthrie's deep catalogue. (It was a sequence that would be repeated in the show's second act, which included a brief onstage interview with Seeger and was highlighted by a wonderful medley of some of Guthrie's whimsical children's songs.)
Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody's granddaughter, dueted with Johnny Irion on two recently unearthed songs from the Woody Guthrie archives: The lilting "California Stars" and the comedic "There'll Be No Church Tonight." Joe Uehlein and the U-Liners chose the loping "Pastures of Plenty" and the up-tempo "Do Re Mi," the latter about the Dust Bowl diaspora and highlighted by guitarist Avril Smith's country hot licks.
Baldemar Velasquez performed a moving, bilingual version of Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)," with norteño accents added via Jesse Ponce's terrific accordion work. Velasquez, the founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, also played an original, about the death of a migrant farm worker in North Carolina. As with Guthrie's populist protest music, its plain language only added to its power.
Two-time Grammy winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer turned in a lightly swinging version of "I Ain't Got No Home," plus another Guthrie rarity, the haunting love song "Birds and Ships."
But it was clear who the main attraction was, and the audience roared when Fink said, "As you know, there's one more singer on the stage." At which point, she introduced . . . a silent auction! (The concert, organized by Uehlein, was a benefit for CultureWorks, a Takoma Park-based arts and activism project.)
When Seeger finally returned to center stage to perform a solo version of Guthrie's "Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?," a protest song about protesters, the audience was absolutely enthralled. Not a bad showing at all for an artist emeritus.