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THE GUTHRIE NAMED ARLO : A Knack for Cracking Up Listeners Has Earned Woody's Son a Legacy of His Own

February 13, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

You'd have to say that Arlo Guthrie was born to be a folk singer. After, all, his late father, Woody Guthrie, pretty much inspired the idea of the professional folk musician.

Because his last name is freighted with so many sonorous associations--such as "legacy" and "folk tradition" and "Bob Dylan's hero"--the significance of the first name of the second-generation Guthrie doesn't get the consideration it deserves.

Remember how the father in Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" gives his son a girl's name so he'll grow up with a tough hide and an individualistic streak?

Well, maybe Woody Guthrie realized that he was handing his son a lot of weight with a last name that carried all of those folk-legacy attachments. So maybe he decided to balance the load by calling him Arlo, the sort of fun name that can brighten your spirits a little just by saying it. As a sort of reserve levity-booster, the younger Guthrie was given "Davy" as a middle name.

This is all just supposition. But just as the boy named Sue developed a hard uppercut, the Guthrie named Arlo developed a knack for punch lines. That much has been obvious since 1967, when he started cracking people up with "Alice's Restaurant." On the flip-side of the "Alice's Restaurant" album, Arlo could be heard airily sing-songing, "I don't want a pickle, I just want to ride on my motorsickle," a smile-raising leap of rhyming nonsense that would never occur to the Harley hordes seen on "Headbangers Ball."

Guthrie has pretty much retired the "Alice's" epic, and his motorsickle madness isn't likely to crop up in concert, either. But, at 44, he has plenty of other funny stories in reserve. His shows are as much evenings with a humorist as they are sessions with a folk singer. The more serious side of the Guthrie legacy still figures prominently: songs of social idealism and political protest (including songs by his father and by Dylan) are very much a part of the Arlo repertoire. So are the two Guthrie songs that have become rock standards: the great Steve Goodman train ballad, "City of New Orleans" (Arlo's only pop hit, it reached No. 18 in 1971), and the pot smuggler's saga, "Coming Into Los Angeles," which was an FM radio staple back in the early '70s.

These days, music-making for Guthrie is something of a cottage industry, with a continuing family orientation. He has acquired his back catalogue of albums and sells them on his own label, Rising Son Records. Due out soon is "Son of the Wind," Guthrie's first album since 1986. It's a collection of old cowboy songs that Arlo first heard from his father and such cronies of his as Cisco Houston and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Also in the works is another family-related project: "Grow Big Songs," an album of children's songs by Woody Guthrie. It will be released simultaneously with a book version that includes Woody Guthrie's own illustrations.

Arlo's concerts have become family affairs, too. He tours with a young, five-piece band called Xavier, which features his son, Abraham, on keyboards. Xavier plays its own stuff, a pop-metal amalgam, during its opening set, then tones things down to fit Arlo's style during his headlining act.

Guthrie also has an acting role in an upcoming film, "Roadside Prophets," a sort of update of "Easy Rider" that stars John Doe of the rock band X and Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys as motorsickle nomads. No word yet on whether the script has Arlo asking the bikers if they want a pickle.

Who: Arlo Guthrie.

When: Friday, Feb. 14, and Saturday, Feb. 15, at 9 p.m., with Xavier.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal: $19.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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