By Kevin Mckeough, Special to the Chicago Tribune
9:52 a.m. CDT, May 20, 2012
The night climaxed, of course, with what ringleader Tom Morello called “a revolutionary class warfare anthem,” although its sounded more like a jubilant New Orleans parade march as about two dozen musicians crammed the Metro stage Saturday night to perform “This Land Is Your Land.”
It was an appropriately festive and feisty culmination of a show celebrating the 100th birthday of the iconic folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who was born a century ago this July 14 (and passed away in 1967). The crowd at the sold-out concert had a lot more gray hair than a typical Metro audience, but as much enthusiasm and arguably more inclination to join in sing-alongs, which they had frequent opportunities to do.
The concert was organized by portoluz, an arts organization headed by former HotHouse proprietor Marguerite Horberg, and reflected her longstanding embrace of multiple cultures and art forms. While admirable, the resulting format—eight acts each performing a few of their own and Guthrie’s songs, mostly with differing accompaniment—led to a lack of cohesion and too much dead time between performers in a show that dragged out over three and a half hours.
Still, the music itself was consistently enjoyable. Scheduled as a counterpoint to the weekend’s NATO summit and co-sponsored by the Illinois Labor History Society, the event had a heavily political emphasis but made room for Guthrie’s romantic side along with his leftist sensibility.
Morello fused the two on “Ease My Revolutionary Mind,” a Guthrie lyric he set to a hearty rock melody. The Libertyville native – whose resume includes alternative rock superstars Rage Against the Machine and his recent Guthriesque solo project under the name the Nightwatchman – also made Bruce Springsteen’s Guthrie-indebted “The Ghost of Tom Joad” the occasion for a searing, sonically extravagant guitar solo.
Preceding him, Mekons and Waco Brothers leader Jon Langford growled “Vigilante Man” like a Doberman amid slashing guitars.
The blues singer Toshi Reagon displayed her powerhouse voice and guitar playing as she led the crowd in a sing-along to “This Train Is Bound for Glory.”
Chicago poet Kevin Coval brought rap fervor to a ribald Guthrie essay, and the local Latin ensemble Son del Viento played a lovely, rippling rendition of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
Chicago folk singer Bucky Halker, who has a PhD in U.S. labor history, conveyed Guthrie’s working man solidarity at its most outraged and compassionate with “The Dying Miner.”
Folk veteran Holly Near put her rich, full alto to “Pastures of Plenty” accompanied by New York band the Klezmatics, who set the words of Guthrie’s “Mermaid’s Avenue” to tart horn fanfares over an accordion shuffle.