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Guthrie, Irion handle the family burden quite well

Longstreet Theater, Columbia S.C., March 10, 2005

By Kevin Oliver

COLUMBIA, S.C. - If it's a burden to handle the weight of her family lineage (Woody's her grandfather, Arlo's her dad), Sarah Lee Guthrie didn't show it on this particular night, a concert that celebrated the release two days earlier of "Exploration" (New West), her first album done officially as a duo with her husband, Johnny Irion.

Since the couple have called Columbia home for the past six years, and Irion has family ties to the area, it was a natural for them to hold their tour kick-off here. The venue, a theatre-in-the-round on the campus of the University Of South Carolina, was still decked out for a stage play that had ended its run the previous weekend, and the rustic country cottage feel of the furnishings behind them and the faux-wood timbers jutting out from above were a perfect complement to the evening's music.

The show, presented by local arts organization Gallery 701 as part of their ongoing efforts to renovate their own arts space in a historic building across town, included opening sets from both Kevin Kinney and bluegrass band Chatham County Line.

Kinney began the night with a short batch of his post-Drivin' N' Cryin,' Dylanesque songs, including material mostly from his last two albums. The folk-leaning audience reacted most positively to the economic hardship tale of, "This Train Don't Stop at the Millworks Any More."

Chatham County Line have made waves with their authentic bluegrass sound, and they just released a disc several weeks before the show, but as singer and guitarist Dave Wilson said, "This night's about Sarah and Johnny, and we're just happy to be here."

They converted an audience almost wholly unfamiliar with them through showmanship and musicianship. Their old-fashioned single-microphone stage technique added to the visual enjoyment of the show. Songs like, "Route 23," and their ode to country music's flagship radio station, "WSM," were highlights of their too-short time on stage.

The reason for the evening, however, was the headlining couple. Guthrie and Irion began with just their intertwined voices and two acoustic guitars. Their opening number, "In Lieu of Flowers," is also the first song on the new album, and they proceeded to play almost everything else off of it.

Not that it was a predictable folk/roots show - far from it. After a few acoustic songs, Irion introduced the rhythm section of bass and drums, who also pull double duty for Kevn Kinney's band the Sun Tangled Angel Revival.

Irion, especially, seemed acutely aware of the amped-up sound's impact on the mostly sedate crowd, which included his parents. Before plugging in his electric guitar, he looked down into the front rows and said, "Mom, I don't think I'm going to be able to turn this one down, sorry."

Not that he needed to apologize for what followed. The parallels to Neil Young's work that were hinted at on Irion's 2001 solo disc "Unity Lodge*" and on the new album with Guthrie are most apparent when he, and everyone around him, plugs in and turns up the volume.

Getting the most benefit from the rocked-out arrangements were songs like, "Holding Back," which featured Guthrie on a vintage-looking Wurlitzer piano, and the politically charged, "Gervais," which addresses the Confederate flag that still flies on the South Carolina State House grounds. The fact that the standard in question was on a pole only three city blocks removed from this concert made the song all the more powerful in its refrain, "It was a battle flag, now we can put it away."

Throughout the set, various members of Chatham County Line, who played on "Exploration," came on stage to reprise their parts. By the finale, every musician ended up on stage together, playing a newly written Pete Seeger song, "Dr. King," in a rocking arrangement that brought the whole night full circle and connected the couple's rock 'n' roll future with their folk music past.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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