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Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (Wednesday, April 13th, Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis)

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion - Publicity Photo

By Cyn Collins

Sarah Lee Guthrie and husband Johnny Irion took the stage at the Cedar Cultural with Athens, Georgia based touring band mates they refer to as “the Corner Pockets”: bassist Brian Howard, and drummer Dave Johnson.

They played with heart, youthful energy and charm. Sarah Lee Guthrie, petite, with sparkly dark eyes and curly chestnut hair is a chip off the old block(s), father Arlo, and grandfather Woody -- a bright spirit with phenomenal vocals comparable to Emmylou Harris. Both together and separate, Guthrie and Irion have a delightfully refreshing and compelling stage presence, a natural ease and joy for simple, unpretentious performance.

They began with “In Lieu of Flowers” a bittersweet song with country harmonies reminiscent of the Jayhawks who Guthrie and Irion deeply admire. (The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris produced their first collaborative album.) Comparisons to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons abound, but I also hear elements of the easy charm, styling and intimacy of duets by Creekdippers Victoria Williams and Mark Olson.

They brought up Dave Boquist (of Son Volt) who played on their new album, Exploration, to play banjo on their modern day train song, “Cease Fire” which they wrote on a train to Philadelphia. Guthrie and Irion built a strong rapport with the audience as they shared stories about each of the songs, what they were inspired by, and how they were written and developed. “Swing of Things” was a “duet style song we kind of wrote together.” Guthrie said Irion “was singing a chorus over and over and over, so finally I wrote the lyrics for him.” This song has a sweet, awesome melody, and Irion plays harp on it as well, reminiscent of Dylan.

As an introduction to “Ain’t that Kindness,” Guthrie told an Arlo story, about when her father bought the “Alice’s Restaurant” in New Hampshire that was formerly a church. One day when Arlo was sweeping the floor, a preacher knocked on the door and said, “Arlo, what are you doing? This is supposed to be a church.” Arlo, who was interested in bringing music to the community, replied, “This is ‘Bring Your Own God’ church. The preacher didn’t come back.

Both Guthrie and Irion are versatile instrumentalists. For the CD’s title song, “Exploration,” Irion took the keyboards on a ’58 Wurlitzer. “Don’t worry if sparks come shooting out,” he said. It had a fantastic rhythm and blues groove.

The story of the next song, “Dr. King,” was that Guthrie and Irion were staying up all night at the Hudson Clearwater Festival drinking and playing by the campfire with old-time/rock band the Mammals until dawn, as those things go. Guthrie and Irion had been to bed only about 2 hours when they heard a frantic knocking on the van, “Pete Seeger has a new song he wants you to sing with him!” So they went onstage and pulled off the song they’d never heard with Seeger, and then later, Irion said they “drug it through the folk process,” meaning they added verses, keyboards, and more layers. Guthrie played cool tambourines, which were enchanting to watch and I felt I actually learned something about playing tambourines by watching and listening. “Dr. King” was rich with groovy funk rhythms by Howard (who Kinney says is his favorite bass player in the world.) The song was written shortly after 9/11 and was appropriately chilling, ominous, and moving.

Irion said, “Talking about Pete, are there any Libba Cotten fans out there? A significant number of hands were raised, indicating this was a well-informed crowd of true long-term music lovers. The song inspired by Cotten was, “My Love is Like a Lazy Susan,” a song full of tongue-in-cheek humor.

Of course, Guthrie looks to her home and her roots for inspiration. She introduced, “There’ll Be No Church Tonight” as one she and Irion “stole from the Woody Guthrie archives.” She added, “He wrote over 3,000 songs, recorded 100, and Billy Bragg and Wilco did 40. We were leafing through the sheets of music and found this one, which was kinda risqué, which we like. I and Johnny each began to sing the same melody while we were reading the lyrics, so then we knew that was how it was meant to go. We took this one and made it our song.” They brought up Louris’ co-producer on the album, Ed Ackerson, (Polara) who skillfully and enthusiastically played keyboards on this and later songs in the show. “Like a gospel song, but it’s not,” this song featured lyrics, “one more kiss from your red, red lips, there’ll be no church tonight. What I seen through that knothole, I’ll neither sing, nor write. But now I know why there’ll be no church tonight.” Ackerson wryly noted that he’d played it in the key of B Flat, “not the people’s key [earlier noted as “G” by Irion], but the bourgeois key.”

“Gervais,” is a powerful, driving rock song about a street in their town, Columbia, South Carolina, where the confederate flag is still flown proudly despite protest by the NAACP. Their political songs are quite well written, and sung with poignancy without sounding pedantic. Guthrie asked Dave Boquist up, teasing “Would you play banjo on this? I know you played fiddle for it on the CD, but it’s almost the same!” Boquist did just fine, picking it on the fly.

They played one of my favorite songs, “Morning’s Over,” written by Guthrie, a snaky blues number involving an empty bed and an aching head. Then they completely rocked out for last song “Gotta Prove.” As part of their encore, they brought up their 2-1/2 year old daughter Olivia. She sang “You are my Sunshine” with a beautiful a capella solo in a strong, enthusiastic voice in perfect pitch and tone. If she’s anything like her mom, and the generations of Guthrie’s before her, she’ll make future generations very happy.

Cyn Collins is cyn.collins@howwastheshow.com