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Guthrie offers set that couldn't be beat

CAMBRIDGE -- Forty years ago, Arlo Guthrie cut his teeth in little coffeehouses like Club Passim. More than most '60s folk stars, he was able to bring the intimate charms of that small-stage style into the pop arena, with his trademark blend of literate goofiness, acute political satire, and sweeping balladry. So it's not surprising that he seemed so utterly at home Monday night, perched on a stool, guitar in hand, beginning a week of sold-out solo shows at the storied cellar club.

Everything he did appeared offhand and immediate, but the art of a master trouper was everywhere in his 90-minute set. He knew just when to offer a new song and a fond old favorite, when to ramble hilariously about his boyhood campaign to avoid a proper musical education, and when to roll wordlessly from a sad antiwar song into a rollicking ragtime romp.

More than that, he was in superb form musically, his voice at once confidential and muscular, his guitar groove sinewy and elegant. After an amiably droll opening set by Michigan songwriter Ralston, Guthrie opened with a romance from his early years, "Chilling of the Evening." Set to a lulling, jingle-jangle cadence, its youthful yearnings now shimmered with the resilience and realism of mature love.

He sprinkled originals with folk classics: "Oklahoma Hills," written by his father, Woody Guthrie; the traditional "St. James Infirmary"; and a brilliant cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," which felt both ebullient and wistful.

Though much of his set dipped into the past, it never felt like an oldies show. He was simply connecting his own life and legacy to the songs, the way he might in his living room. It seemed only natural to talk about his dad before singing one of his songs, or to lampoon his drug-fogged youth before singing an old song about being, well, young and drug-fogged.

The unrepentant old lefty made his feelings about the recent election perfectly clear, shaking his head and muttering, "I never thought Richard Nixon would look so good to me." He kept interrupting the verses of his father's "This Land Is Your Land," as if stories were randomly popping into his head. But somehow, each concluded in clarion calls for renewed activism and an abiding faith in the power of a single, honest voice.

Arlo Guthrie
With Ralston
At: Club Passim, Monday night

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