A Tribute to Woody Guthrie: Chicago Sun-Times

Friday afternoon in Daley Plaza, folk-rocker Tom Morello roused the rally organized by National Nurses United by playing inspirational union songs. Then he tried to lead a sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land.” But the crowd was young and, well, many didn’t know the words.

That was not a problem Saturday night.

Closing out a sold-out show — a concert called “This Land Is Your Land: A Centennial Concert Celebration of the Legendary Woody Guthrie,” at Metro in Wrigleyville — Morello and the entire bill of more than 30 local musicians and international icons crowded the stage and sang every line to Guthrie’s unofficial national anthem without any audience coaching. This crowd, though, was (at least in comparison with the usual rock mobs at Metro) not young. Many even knew the “censored” verses.

Saturday’s tribute show crystallized in music much of what was being chanted, debated and discussed across Chicago during the weekend of the NATO summit and its corresponding protests. With the artists drawing from Guthrie’s catalog as well as their own, themes of class struggle, inequality, immigrant rights and labor were well represented.

More than a musical node for NATO events in Chicago, though, this was a celebration of Guthrie’s life and legacy. The legendary American folksinger, who died in 1967, was born 100 years ago this July. Guthrie’s overtly political songs constitute a fraction of his total creative output, and many of the show’s artists — an impressively diverse and cross-cultural lineup — showcased his playful and even naughty sides.

The Klezmatics, for instance, opened the show with “Mermaid’s Avenue,” a jaunty song about Guthrie’s Brooklyn home, then revved up the reeds for a bare-knuckled run through “Hey Lolly Lolly,” Guthrie’s “anti-fascist love song.” Local spoken-word poet Kevin Coval, backed by noted bassist Harrison Bankhead, spewed forth the quirky “Union Love Juice,” an essay of Guthrie’s that begins, “I am the meat and the flower of sex.”

“Did you know Woody Guthrie had a freaky side?” Coval asked.

But the topical material earned the most fervent cheers: Bucky Halker’s trio tearing through the first-person tragedy of “The Dying Miner,” Jon Langford’s full band blaring through the snarling “Vigilante Man,” the poignancy of Pilsen-based son jarocho quintet Son del Viento singing “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Veteran folk singer Holly Near, her voice so much warmer than Joan Baez’, delivered a throaty “Pastures of Plenty,” and when she sang “we’ll fight till we win,” the crowd whooped.

Morello wrapped the show with what’s rapidly becoming a protest-leader shtick for him. Mixing his well-heeled rock guitar pyrotechnics (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) and his newer folkie earnestness as The Nightwatchman, the North Shore native barked and howled through “Flesh Shapes the Day,” added two flashy (maybe too flashy, playing with his teeth) electric guitar solos to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and taught the crowd to sing his own “World Wide Rebel Songs” before kicking off the “This Land” finale and getting the crowd, even the octogenarians, to pogo.

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