Thursday, January 19, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #2: Woody Sed at Club PuSh

What happens when the artist from New York whom you've invited to open Club PuSh--the cabaret-cum-festival-within-the festival at Performance Works on Granville Island--cancels at the last minute? Why, you phone up Thomas Jones, of course. Jones is a local writer and performer whose one-man show, Woody Sed, played at The Cultch's Culture Lab last October. My loss at having missed it then was my gain last night, as on four days notice Jones got back into character as the legendary American folksinger and political activist, Woody Guthrie, tuned up his guitar, and wowed us all through a combination of story and song.

Actually, Jones got into more than just Guthrie's character, for this solo biographical show (the title is a riff on a column Guthrie wrote for the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1939-40) calls for him to incarnate many other roles as well, including Guthrie's three wives, the radio broadcaster Ed Robbin, and the Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax, whose conversations and recordings with Guthrie in the 1940s led to his first record, Dust Bowl Ballads. Jones steps in and out of each character deftly, moving into a spot, modulating his voice slightly, and adopting a small gesture or significant pose to distinguish different speakers, as well as to mark for us where we are in the story. For the play, while mostly chronological, does weave back and forth in time, beginning with Guthrie's struggles in New York in 1940 to find the right words for his most famous song, "This Land is Your Land," which was inspired by his distaste for Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." We are then transported to the hospital where Guthrie spent the last 15 years of his life, his body and mind slowly deteriorating as a result of Huntington's disease, and with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia (a dancer with the Martha Graham Company), keeping vigil. Only then do we go back to his childhood in Oklahoma, his early troubadouring between there and California during the Depression, his politicization and radio work, and of course those famous conversations with Lomax.

And everywhere along the way we are treated to music, Jones wisely studding his tale--which, despite Guthrie's undeniable legacy today, is not at all a happy one--with both popular and lesser-known tunes from throughout his subject's career. Jones has a rich and warm singing voice and is also an accomplished guitar-player; combined with the deliberate lack of vocal or instrumental amplification and the intimate Club PuSh setting, it really felt that we were sitting around a campfire swapping stories and songs. Which is, of course, what Woody would have wanted. The self-taught musician who famously thumbed his nose at copywriting his work believed, as Jones tells us in a brief program note, that music was above all something to share. And, to that end, the show ended with all of us in chorus on a version of "This Train is Bound for Glory."

A most fitting tribute to Guthrie in the centenary of his birth, and an inspired choice to open the Club.


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