Smile Politely

This one’s for Woody

After a digitally-rendered hologram of Tupac Shakur appeared at this year’s Coachella Music Festival in California, talks of other deceased artists being resurrected have come up here and there. This past weekend, however, a group of talented musicians from across the state gathered in Mike ‘N Molly’s beer garden to conjure the spirit of an American music icon in a slightly less profligate manner.

Saturday night’s Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration featured 20 singer/songwriters from the area performing two to three song sets featuring tunes that were hand-selected from Guthrie’s canon. The shows were interspersed with trivia regarding Guthrie’s life that was provided by emcee John Coppess. Margaret O’Brien opened the show with a selection of three songs highlighting her stunning Joni Mitchell-esque vocals and seemingly effortless dulcimer work. The bar was set high for the rest of the evening and the packed beer garden sat in rapt attention, curious as to what other surprises the night may bring.

Kevin Elliot led the first sing-a-long of the evening with “Peace Call,” and Coppess took a break from his duties as emcee to strum a heart-breaking rendition of “Deportee,” which Cullyn Murphy referenced later in his reminder to the audience that “the deportees live on through the power of [Guthrie’s] words. … He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”

Political conflict was a clear theme in the song selections, as was economic strife, wanderlust, and man’s relationship with technology. Many artists spoke of the relevance of Guthrie’s music to America’s current struggles.

The celebration, however, was not without merriment. John Feldman Michael Meadows offered a jovial rendition of “Car Car” and provided a spot-on Prius impersonation during an adapted-for-modern-times verse.

Before the evening came to a close, the crowd was treated to a couple sets from the next generation of Guthrie fans. After admitting that she didn’t know much about the folk music icon, Emily Otnes played several Guthrie tunes made popular by Jonatha Brooke before sharing a duet with Justin Rondon. Rondon, who also confessed to only recently beginning his exploration of his catalogue, acknowledged Guthrie’s impact on some of his favorite artists and closed out the show with Bob Dylan’s “Song for Woody” followed by Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “All You Fascists.” 

A surprise appearance by Kathy Harden (supported by Anne Clements) marked the last set before several performers returned to the stage for an inspiring rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”

While no cake was served during this birthday celebration, each performer’s rendition of Guthrie’s originals served as a single candle lit in memory of a man who influenced uncountable musicians. Even though the performers were constantly battling the noise from the street festival around the corner, as well as the perpetual threat of rain, the focus of the evening never wavered and the crowd remained invested and enthusiastic. There was a remarkable sense of community in the garden that evening, and the event — a fundraiser for the Folk & Roots festival — was a rousing success on several fronts. To repeat an utterance heard many times Saturday night, Woody would be proud.

All photos by Eric Ponder.

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