Arlo Guthrie and the Roches bring coffeehouse ambiance to the Night Shift

by Seth Rogovoy

NORTH ADAMS, Mass., June 2, 1996 -- The ever-changing Night Shift Cafe, which has been variously incarnated as a Louisiana roadhouse, a Chicago blues joint, a Fifties sock hop and an urban rock club, took on a whole new aspect on Saturday night, when performers Arlo Guthrie and The Roches brought a folk-coffeehouse aspect to the chameleon- like venue.

With tables and chairs filling in the dance floor in front of the stage, the audience was treated to an intimate evening with the performers similar in feel to listening clubs like Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall. The artists responded in kind, tailoring their sets to the attentive crowd with friendly, humorous banter between songs in an attempt to break down the artificial wall separating performer from audience. For the most part, they succeeded, in an evening that was nearly as much about comedy as it was about music.

Comedy, of course, is a built-in element of any Arlo Guthrie performance, and while the folksinger is able to make listeners even at a place like Tanglewood feel like he's talking to each and every one of them individually, it works much better when you can practically reach out and touch him.

It was Guthrie doing the reaching out and touching on Saturday night, with a set blending vintage material with new songs off of his latest recording, "Mystic Journey" (Rising Son).

Arlo's classics, including the opener, "Chilling of the Evening," and the encore, "Highway In the Wind," both off his landmark album, "Alice's Restaurant" (no, he didn't play the title track), stood up in concert as examples of Guthrie's best, Byrds- and Dylan-influenced folk-rock. While he may be most noted for his story-song novelty numbers, it's too easy to overlook the fact that Guthrie recorded some of the lasting classics of the late-'60s, folk-rock genre, including Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," which he also played in a dramatic keyboard-driven arrangement.

Guthrie's shows are as much about the setups for the songs as the songs themselves, and a number like the slight novelty "Ring-Around- a-Rosy Rag" benefited enormously from the riotously funny story he told about its origins. Likewise, a partial rendition of "Ukelele Lady" was merely an occasion for an extended riff on folk festivals, tropical songs and global warming, tied together neatly as only Guthrie can into a perfect package of persiflage.

Backed ably during his show by his son, Abe, on keyboards and harmony vocals, Guthrie also played a number of tunes from "Mystic Journey," including "Moon Song," "Doors of Heaven" and "Under Cover of the Night," which borrowed its key riff from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio." The new songs all share a mystical, new-agey approach, which worked to best effect on the anthemic "Wake Up Dead."

The Roches, the New York City-based sister trio, opened the show with a set that drew heavily from recent albums such as "Speak" and last year's excellent "Can We Go Home Now" (Rykodisc). Like Guthrie, they also took every opportunity to introduce a song with a humorous story about its genesis or background.

Numbers like "Cloud Dancing," "Everyone Is Good," "Want Not Want Not" and "Home Away From Home" were typical in their focus on family life, with occasional peeks into their own lives as urban sophisticates treated with ironic detachment, such as on their opener, "Big Nuthin'."

The Roches specialty is their dazzling three-part harmony, equally influenced by madrigals, art songs, modern classical and religious singing. Sometimes all these influences converge in one number, most obviously, perhaps, in their rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus," which owes as much to Philip Glass as to Handel. The tune "Ing," too, was artfully virtuosic, with vocal parts mimicking the ringing of bells in a kind of musical pointillism.

With Maggie Roche doing duty on synthesizer and drum programs, Suzzy and Terre Roche variously filled in on guitar. The sisters, all of whom write their songs and sing lead, fleshed out their presentation with stories that gave listeners a sense of them as people. Drawn crudely, eldest sister Maggie is the serious one, youngest sister Suzzy the eccentric one, and middle sister Terre the dreamy romantic. Together, they add up to a unique, extraordinary, playful and provocative musical experience.

(This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 3, 1996. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1996. All rights reserved.)

Seth Rogovoy
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