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Live from the Guthrie Center


You could perceive the Guthrie Center, founded in 1991 by songwriter/singer Arlo Guthrie, as a cozy musical venue. The former sanctuary of the 189-year-old Trinity Church, where the song The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree began and where the movie Alice’s Restaurant was filmed, is now filled with café tables where diners chatter happily until the stage lights come up and that night’s performer takes center stage.

The center hosts a steady stream of performers through its continuing Troubador Series, started by Guthrie in 2000, and is launching a Talking Series in August, in which Guthrie will host four evenings with special musical guests and speakers. Each night begins with a song performed by Guthrie, who then introduces a special musical guest. The second half of the evening will be a panel discussion followed by a Q&A.

The series opens tonight (August 1st) with Talkin’ Family Archives, featuring Cole Quest and The City Pickers and Anna Canoni. Cole Quest, grandson of folk icon Woody Guthrie, brought together The City Pickers, a collection of eclectic players who have gained recognition on the New York scene. Anna Canoni, Woody’s granddaughter and senior operations manager of Woody Guthrie Publications, will join the discussion.

August 8th will bring Talkin’ Shenandoah, featuring Terry Hall, Steve and Carol Ide, David Grover and Rob Putnam. Shenandoah backed Arlo Guthrie from the mid-’70s through the ’80s, with some members accompanying him on his 2016-2017 “Running Down the Road” tour. Bruce Clapper, Guthrie’s audio engineer and road manager, will join the discussion.

August 15th brings Talkin’ Guthrie Family, featuring Abe, Cathy, Annie, and Sarah Lee Guthrie, who, as the Guthrie Family, join their dad at the annual show at Carnegie Hall or family tours.

Finally, on August 29th, Talkin’ Bromberg brings David Bromberg, Guthrie’s good friend. His career spans five-and-a-half decades, and includes adventures with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, and seminal blues guitarist, Reverend Gary Davis.
Tickets at $90 per show for members; $100 for non-members; $150 for VIP seating (including a pre-show reception at 6 PM) may be purchased online.

Before all performances, the audience is invited to dine on food prepared in the center’s kitchen. So the Guthrie Center could be seen as a dinner theater. But it is, oh, so much more to the community.

“We do music because we know how to,” said artistic director and general manager George Laye. “It’s our Bingo kind of thing. But I don’t want the center to be known as a club—even though we have a good reputation for booking acts. What really matters is our community programs, our giving back through free lunches, legal aid, tutoring and yoga programs.”

Laye, who terms himself an “old Hippie who always had a job,” exudes a kind of 1960’s counter-culture social conscience. He says the center, which is staffed by dedicated volunteers, is always alert for more ways that it can have a social impact.

Offering an example of the social awareness of the center’s devotees, he recalled the start of the tutoring program. “When I first came on, someone mentioned the possibility of a tutoring program. So I put an ad in the Shopper’s Guide for free tutors. These retired professors and teachers started coming out of the woodwork. For the cost of a $3 ad, we were able to start the program.”

Sponsored by the Guthrie Foundation, tutoring is open to students in grade 1 through high school, with assistance also offered to adults. Those needing assistance can call 413-528-1955 for information and to register.

Laye said the free Wednesday lunch program started soon after Guthrie established the center. Lunches are available to “whoever needs a lunch that day,” he said. “You don’t have to be homeless. Maybe you just moved into the area and want to meet people. A lot of seniors come and it stretches their Social Security. And they can take home food that will last a couple of days.”

Laye said food is provided by area farms and “is all good healthy food” prepared by volunteers. “We don’t want it to feel institutional,” he said. “They eat at the tables where we put on the shows. Some of the volunteers are musicians and sometimes they will come in and play at the community lunch.”

Another service is also provided during the weekly lunches. An attorney is present to meet privately with those in need of legal counsel. The free legal aid is sponsored by the Berkshire Center for Justice.

“People come in and they are just beside themselves,” said Laye. But after receiving the offered help, he says he can see the relief in their faces “That’s why I sleep well,” he said. “We’re always looking. Wherever there is a need, we try to fill it.”

He pointed to the free yoga sessions offered Fridays from 10-11AM through September 7th. Classes are led by Scott Smith, a Kripalu-certified instructor, who teaches meditative breath-centered yoga suitable for all levels and abilities.

“A lot of regular folks are intimidated about going to yoga centers. It has been seen as being for the rich and elite,” said Laye. “But now they can come to Guthrie center and get healthy by just taking part in a class.”

Most recently Laye launched his Youth Spotlight which occasionally introduces a young performer to regional audiences. Last Saturday, the spotlight fell on 15-year-old Fiora Lana Caligiuri. “She had studied classical music for 10 years and got bored and wanted to write her own songs,” said Laye. “When I heard the words to her songs, I was just overtaken. She has potential and is very serious about her work. All the artists are very supportive of having these young performers play a few songs.”

Indeed, Saturday’s performer, singer/songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, confessed she was moved to tears by the young artist’s promise.

Since becoming artistic director in 2004, Laye has dedicated his life to the center. “The hours are killing,” he said, “but every day is almost like the first day. I almost can’t wait to get there.”

Still, at 77, he is glad to hand off some tasks to others and he is effusive in his gratitude to those who step up to help sustain the center.

“People come out of the blue,” he said. He reported that he had taken over grounds maintenance to help the struggling center save money. “I started mowing the lawn and we were saving $15,000 to $20,000,” he said. “Now, I am saying I don’t have the time. I need to be more of a director. So, I called a lawn mowing service.”

A young man appeared, gave a quote, and Laye regretfully said it was more than the center could afford. He gave the young man a tour, a brochure and went back to his business.

“A week later, I was mowing the property and this guy came walking across the lawn,” he recounted. “He said, ‘I read your brochure and I want to mow your lawn for nothing.’ He’s 28, has his own business, and wanted to help us. It warmed my heart and helped my back.”

Those who would like more information about Guthrie Center programs and the work of the center please click the link below.