Willie Nelson interview
Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisIn the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie has called upon his artist friends for a benefit concert tour inspired by his smash single "City of New Orleans." Rather than traveling by bus or plane, he and his entourage hopped aboard Amtrak's train of the same name visiting multiple cities along the way, culminating with an all star jam in New Orleans. ConcertLivewire's Andy Argyrakis jumped on for the finale leg, which included a plethora of concerts, public appearances, community outreach and hang out time. Here's an all access pass into life with the "Arlo Guthrie & Friends: Ridin' on The City of New Orleans Tour," including an up close and personal look at Guthrie and performing pals Abe Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack, Xavier, Jack Irons, Mickey Rafael, Willie Nelson and many more!
I've finally figured out that as the tour gets closer to its completion, the lobby call times (today at the Chateau Sonesta) get later and later. That was certainly fine by me since yesterday left us all absolutely exhausted, plus I knew we'd be partying for the cause well into the night. The overcast afternoon warmed up with Arlo Guthrie's friendly glow as publicist Cash Edwards organized what she called a "press bull pen" staged next store to the Tipitina's club in what was commonly referred to as the "dinner house." Basically, media had the opportunity to spend some time with Arlo, taking turns asking questions relating to the road so far and the New Orleans rebuilding process. Having already gotten to know Arlo relatively well made the moments of interaction quite comfortable and he was generous with his time in addressing my inquiries. Here's a closer glimpse into some of the topics on tap:
Arlo on the tour's accomplishments: "To tell you the truth I've been thinking about it because people have been asking [questions] like 'how much money did you raise?' and 'what were your goals in all of that?' and the truth is we didn't really have a goal. I'm not a goal kind of person. I'm a person that believes sometimes you just have to do things without goals. You have to make an effort in the face of disaster and if you succeed and at least get through- which is something I think we did- then everybody can go home with a big smile on their face. And to tell you the truth, all of the people we had met along the route and here in New Orleans have just greeted us probably more than we deserved, but it's been a very moving time for us. This is a thing we're going to remember in our family for a couple of generations because we've never done anything like this. We've never called up a bunch of friends and got together for two weeks- most of the time awake- though we look a little ragged and will probably sound a little ragged tonight. But everybody at this point is devastated by what we saw here, some were in tears yesterday when we were traveling around because it's unimaginable and there's no way that cameras or stories written about it are going to describe it to anybody. On the other hand, we met some people out there in the middle of this rubble picking up trying to straighten out their little places and all we did was walk over to them and ask them what they were doing. And they were between angry [because] they didn't get any help. They're still waiting out on FEMA, or whatever, to come by or do something. One guy said he got a hotel room for a few nights, that was about it! These are people that lost everything. What can you say to them except we wish you the best of luck?"
Arlo on keeping the awareness alive: "All of these experiences have played into our hearts and minds and we're going away from here feeling as if we had focused some attention thorough whatever means we could- [like] the media- on something that's going to be focused on for quite a long time. And now it's months after this has happened, different things have gone on, different things come into the news [and] different things are important. We rotate through the world of events, but this devastation is going to stay here for a long time. We're all aware of that now, so we've decided to continue to help even after this tour is over. I'm not sure how exactly we're going to do it, but we'll probably be collecting some instruments from people and keep some of the fundraising going. We might turn this into an annul event if something comes out of something [and] if we get the support from the same people that helped us out this time."
Arlo on finding fulfillment despite his road weary state: "It's been one of those times in your life that it seems like we've been living about a year on this thing and we've only done it for two weeks! A whole lot of experiences have been packed into a very little amount of time. Somebody was thanking me the other day and I thought about it. We're really not doing that much, we're just singing and we're just doing what we always do! So we'll continue to do that- that's not that hard for us. I was glad to be able to afford two weeks of my life to do what we do."
Following the questions, Arlo headed back to the venue for some chill time in the dressing room, though his band, other artists and many of the tour's crew and media piled into the kitchen of this neighboring home for a feast full of New Orleans' finest. Aromas of fried chicken mixed with jambalaya, red beans and rice, stew, and even some thin crust pizza consumed the room. But just as we were all about to take a bite out of the action, Cash came around informing me and some of the other press that Willie Nelson had arrived. Not only would he be entering the venue shortly to greet his extended family and friends, but he invited a handful of us including yours truly to the tour bus for a lightening round of interviews. Within seconds we were whisked away from the meal and up on his blue and grey buffered bus, complete with a horse portrait on the outer panel. Upon arriving inside, we were greeted by his daughter Amy, who I sat next to for a brief dose of catch up. Soon her father emerged from the back bunk clad in his signature cowboy hat, big boots and larger than life personality. But rather than giving off that ultra unapproachable super-celebrity attitude, he was unbelievably down to earth, taking the time to introduce himself to everyone individually and offer a hand shake with direct eye contact to all those gathered. Here's a couple comments he had for ConcertLivewire readers:
Willie on keeping New Orleans media attention going: "Well I think we want to keep the media attention on it. I think its up to the media not to be directed by other courses around that tell you 'hey get off of New Orleans for awhile.' [I say] stay on New Orleans, stay on the Gulf Coast, stay on this whole area down here. If you stay on it, I'll stay on it and we can keep talking about it and make the change."
Willie on a benefit single for the Katrina cause: "Well I've heard that's being done by some great artists, I heard some of the names, and I think that's a great idea. It might be something we could do later on. I ran into Quincy Jones in New York the other day - you know he did 'We Are the World.'"
Before dismissing his small but captive audience from the traveling home away from home, Nelson had one final thought about music's ability to impact the world at large. "Music heals," he said. "It cuts through all the ideas and the barriers and the things you thought you liked or didn't like. And the next thing you know you're hearing a song you like and it makes you forget for a moment and that's very important." The thoughts hit the spot and were some final words of wisdom before we all dived back into dinner and prepared for the show. Considering the handful of the trip, plus the amount of local media and even national outlets that were flying in for the finale, I ate quick and made my way to the venue's photo pit.
Somewhere just after 9 p.m. the show started and the next three and a half hours was basically an endless highlight reel. The first half featured all of the artists who've appeared throughout the week, though the second half included sets by Guthrie and Nelson, along with many collaborations. One of the most enjoyable came during Folk Uke's performance when Amy Nelson announced it was time for a daddy/daughter duet session. Sure enough, out came Willie, along with her group mate Cathy's father Arlo. The sold out audience exploded with enthusiasm, welcoming the co-headliners with deafening applause and fanfare. Though they only performed two tracks together, the chemistry between the minimally rehearsed foursome was still remarkable and worth repeating.
Later on in the night, Nelson reprised his time in the spotlight with an abbreviated greatest hits set on acoustic guitar accompanied by harmonica player Mickey Rafael. Not only did the evening provide an extremely rare opportunity to see the troubadour in a club setting, but he was also dead on the money when it came to execution. Cuts like "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life" came off just as timeless as they did clever, while "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" was the epitome of cool. Guthrie soon joined him on acoustic guitar, trading choruses on occasion and adding his delicate, southern tipped strums.
After about ten minutes together, Nelson left to give Guthrie the main microphone and he kept the pace going with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." It was something virtually attendee knew and they roared with approval, setting the tone for Arlo standards like "St. James Infirmary" and "Coming In To Los Angeles." But they all paled in comparison to an extended version of "This Land Is Your Land," during which Nelson and the entire cast slipped on stage as a backing choir. The spirit continued through a triumphant take on "City of New Orleans," by far the most poignant version on the entire tour that was offered as a torch of optimism. Everyone left the stage for a brief second but popped back out from behind the backstage curtain after only a few seconds as Nelson summoned for the final hymn of hope "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" The emotional moment, riddled with words of encouragement, was truly the last cap to an unforgettable engagement and monumental week that stretched beyond music industry achievement and into the very heartland of America's people. Rock and folk's forefathers would be proud, those who participated will never forget it and even more importantly, the entire tour topped off yet another rebuilding block for "The City of New Orleans."
Willie & Amy
Day 1 - Arlo Guthrie & Friends: Ridin' on
The City of New Orleans Tour
Day 2 - Arlo Guthrie & Friends: Ridin' on
The City of New Orleans Tour
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