By Mark Guarino
It could be no more amusing or surreal: Snow falling, indoors, onto the stage of a high school auditorium in small town Illinois, making a Neville brother, exiled from New Orleans, flick flakes from his shoulder while singing the praises of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Funk power and Northern Illinois — on the coldest day of the year yet — are cousins most likely at odds. Not any longer thanks to a 12-day traveling carnival organized by Arlo Guthrie in early December that brought a jumble of musicians from all walks of life to seven stops along the historic City of New Orleans Amtrak train line. Starting at the Vic in Chicago and ending at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the series of concerts were fundraisers for MusiCares, the philanthropic resource wing of the Recording Academy, which is expected to distribute new gear for musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
The second show of the whistle-stop tour was in Kankakee, located about 50 miles south of Chicago. Introducing the show in the Lincoln Cultural Center, an elegant 1,200-seat auditorium attached to a local high school, Guthrie said he remembers seeing pictures of Fats Domino being rescued from the raging floodwaters and wondering about the fates of the hundreds of other musicians in the city, stranded by nature or our federal government.
“If this is the shape that he’s in, what about all those nameless guys?,” he asked.
Organizing evolved with speed and luck as it started about four weeks before the Chicago launch. (“There’s no plan for this,” he said.) Guthrie emailed friends, corralled Amtrak’s help and waited for the response. Musicians of every stripe answered the call (including Cyril Neville jumping on board in Chicago, Todd Snider in Memphis and Willie Nelson in New Orleans) plus Guthrie’s email spam ended up in the hands of the tour’s single most unexpected participant: Richard Pryor. The late comedian, an Illinois native, volunteered to completely underwrite the Chicago show, Guthrie said. By the night of the third show, Pryor was dead of a heart attack.
For Guthrie, there was personal synergy. He first heard “City of New Orleans” performed by Steve Goodman, the Chicago songwriter who wrote it, around the corner from the Vic, home to the tour’s first night. Nine years after Guthrie made it a hit in 1972, Amtrak re-christened the train with the song title after it had long been retired.
In Kankakee, the three-hour show had all the congenial charm of a hometown jubilee, capped with artificial snow occasionally wafting down from the rafters due to a pending production of The Nutcracker. Families sat in the seats watching families — Guthrie, his three daughters, son and grandchildren, plus the Burns Sisters — perform onstage. Off the cuff was the directive of the night. Guthrie and daughter Sarah Lee rotated as emcees while artists intermingled through each other’s sets. The group would remain in Kankakee (home of the first Dairy Queen) for two more days performing shows at local bars, with Arlo later speaking at the public library and a neighborhood coffeehouse, all for the price of a single canned good.
Next to Cyril Neville, New Orleans was represented by native Jack Neilson, a singer-songwriter who summoned the spirit of Woody Guthrie with his chilling cover of “Hobo’s Lullaby” performed solo acoustic. The solemnity he cast was later bashed to pieces by Austinite Ramsay Midwood. With a full band that accentuated the menacing reverb of his guitar, Midwood deadpanned while singing songs brimmed with black humor. He turned his set over to guitarist Mike Nicolai who sang the evening’s only song with a holiday theme. It was “Christmas is for Losers,” an underdog’s lament that became an immediate hit with the crowd. “You can have Wal-Mart/you can have Sting/but you can’t have Christmas,” he implored.
Until Cyril Neville hit the stage, the show didn’t have that bolt of dissent that might accompany a show focused on the nation’s worst natural disaster and the political malfeasance that followed. In its place was a soppy tribute to Cindy Sheehan by the Burns Sisters, a three-member vocal group from Ithaca, N.Y., and a song performed by Xavier, a cheery synth-rock band led by Guthrie’s son Abe, that was reported to be inspired by — who knew this was possible? — the film Blackhawk Down.
Neville personified defiance in his set in everything he said and did. Rotating between sharing a microphone with his wife Gaynielle and bashing the drums behind a kit with sticks that sounded like hammers, he set a fire under the crowd with “Sister Rosa,” the Neville Brothers’ tribute to Rosa Parks, and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” The former resident of New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood who now has permanently settled in Austin, Tex., Neville directed vitriol at FEMA and the state of his former city.
“All that tax money we’ve been paying all these years, we want our money back,” he said.
His set blended into Guthrie’s when both shared lead vocals on Woody Guthrie’s “Mean Things Are Happening in This World.” Then came “Alice’s Restaurant,” the marathon monologue celebrating its 40th birthday this year. Guthrie sang it with such conversational ease, every nuance felt topical.
The stage filled with musicians for “This Land is Your Land” and, of course, “City of New Orleans.” Guthrie stopped the show for a quick Bible story, the one about Joseph and his coat. It became comically convoluted, but sold this one point: “we’re living in times so strange and surreal, not just natural disasters … but the ones we create ourselves.”