Woody Guthrie 100th Birthday Party, Tribute and 88.1 KDHX Benefit, 7/14/12: Review

Jul 16, 2012 at 9:20 am

Just One Big Soul: Woody Guthrie 100th Birthday Party, Tribute and 88.1 KDHX Benefit Off Broadway July 14, 2012

Behold the power of Woody Guthrie:

A man with a trucker hat, tousled grey hair, and a thick, hearty mustache, a mustache that has seen some hard travelin', chokes out "Goodbye to my one. Goodbye, Rosalita," and sways amid a cross-generational sea of folksters who are just getting started.

It is rare to see a man, much less a man so magnificently mustachioed, cry in public with the kind of tears most reserve for the moment their loved ones walk away forever. But this is the power of Woody Guthrie. Even in cover form.

88.1 KDHX, the hardscrabble radio station Guthrie would have loved, threw a hell of a party for the folk icon at Off Broadway. For nearly five hours on Saturday, heartrending harmonies from young troubadours met earth-shaking drum beats and plenty of funky bass jams as thirteen local artists and bands paid tribute to one of music's most influential figures.

Kevin Buckley, Cree Rider Family Duo, Ben Bedford, Greg Silsby and Dustin Greer, The Union Electric, Letter to Memphis, Langen Neubacher & The Defeated County, Campfire Club, The Warbuckles, Cindy Woolf and Mark Bilyeu, Colonel Ford, Brothers Lazaroff, and Stickley & Canan performed thirteen standout sets.

At "Just One Big Soul," as the show -- also a benefit concert for 88.1 KDHX -- was called, some artists attempted faithful renditions, while others threw Guthrie's classics into new territory... a familiar formula for anyone who's ever been to a tribute show before. It's a testament to Guthrie's catalog and to the talent and energy of a diverse line-up that after nearly four and a half hours of covers I was still feelin' it and so were hundreds of other sweaty people.

Colonel Ford, center, sings "This Land is Your Land"
Colonel Ford, center, sings "This Land is Your Land"

Ben Bedford was a crowd favorite for his transfixing renditions of "Pastures of Plenty", "This Morning I Am Born Again", and "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" (the song that made more than one cowboy cry). Bedford, a country singer from Springfield, Illinois, told us he's relatively new to playing Guthrie. But he was made for these songs about long roads and unknown destinations. In "Deportee" he scales back the tempo, and re-fashions it like a heart-ripping-out-of-your-chest love song instead of the protest tune it was meant to be. His voice swells to fill a vast emptiness you forgot was there, and that sadness dissipates into a crowd that's feeling it all too.

Later, the Union Electric took a turn toward hard rock with beats that made the walls shake... as well as a few older heads. Drummer Mic Boshans is a tsunami, giving a 60-year old song the grace and power to knock out villages in one clean sweep of a chorus. I would've loved to see what they could have done with Guthrie's music for kids.

Some of the best covers of the night were from female singers, maybe because they can claim Guthrie in ways that men can't. Devon Cahill of Letter to Memphis, cooed her way through "Hobo's Lullaby" like Zooey Deschanel with a better sense of pitch and a $10 watermelon ukulele. Mellow jazz riffs from a guest saxophonist were a special treat.

The warm, nostalgic night ended with most of the musicians back on stage, performing verses from "This Land is Your Land." Maybe it was a chore of a song for many of us in fourth grade, but the crowd was all smiles as they joined in on the exuberant last lines, "this land was made for you and me."