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Legacy Act: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Celebrate New CD, New Sound at Helsinki

By Robert Burke Warren

guthSome legacy-bearers follow directly in their ancestors’ footsteps, keeping to tradition, and carrying on in a predictable vein. Others, like Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, challenge expectations, a more risky prospect; she is Arlo’s daughter, he is John Steinbeck’s grandnephew, and, since 2004, they’ve risen as a largely salt-of-the Earth, homespun folk duo, much like her renowned family. But the music on the CD they’ll be celebrating at Helsinki Hudson on Saturday, September 7, will surprise some folkniks and delight rock fans. Wassaic Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, diverges from their established, rootsy sound, offering a layered, textured, irresistibly tuneful batch of songs embracing the rock they’ve long harbored in their conjoined hearts. To replicate the unabashedly grand Wassaic Way sound, they’ll bring a full band (recently heard on The World Café)to Hudson.

“I was a punk rock chick,” says Guthrie. “And Johnny comes from an indie rock background. I love folk rooms, but we were folk by default. We’ve always been the youngest people at the gig. I want to play to my peers, execute something that’s bigger than the two of us. This is a call to our people!”

arloIndeed, they first stepped out as a duo with Arlo, and his followers are, of course, mostly of the Woodstock Nation. Sarah Lee and Johnny blossomed in the folk footlights, but their ears still rang with rock; he had toured extensively as an indie rock sideman, releasing an acclaimed solo CD in 2001, while Sarah Lee had been road managing her father’s traveling show and listening mostly to, she says, “heavy stuff.” When they met backstage at a Black Crowes gig, she was hanging out with the crew, talking shop. After marrying, they began making music, and Sarah Lee’s dad offered them a coveted opening slot on his tour. “It was an education,” Johnny says of those first, starkly acoustic performances. “We were pretty green, but it was a good learning experience. We messed up a lot, and Arlo let us mess up. I watched him mess up, too.”

saraThree predominantly acoustic, well-received studio releases, and two daughters followed. While all was well, the couple yearned to take their time, craft an album in a studio, using modern technology, and release it on their own terms. Like, say, Wilco. Coincidentally, Wilco had brought Sarah Lee’s granddad Woody’s songs to a new generation with 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, now a budding producer, saw a Sarah Lee and Johnny show and loved it, inviting them to Solid Sound 2011 at MASS MoCA. When he heard the demos Johnny and Sarah Lee sent him, he called in Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and they set about making Wassaic Way at Wilco’s Loft in Chicago. While the intensive process wasn’t always smooth, both Sarah Lee and Johnny consider it their best work by far.

Sarah Lee’s upbringing in the chaotic world of Guthrie prepared her well for working with Tweedy: “Sometimes Jeff would take a song in a completely different direction than what we wanted. Like my dad would do, he’d pull the rug out from under you. He was very crafty, like, ‘Let’s take what you really think you should do and don’t do that.’ But with creativity, sometimes you dig yourself a hole and see if you can get out. The process of these songs was like that. It was like, ‘Let’s lose these songs and see if we can get them back.’ Through that process we came up with something even better.”

cd“Every song we would attack in a songwriter workshop kind of vibe,” Johnny says. “It was really fun. Jeff was amazing, suggesting phrasing, using different words, words that sing better. He understands the mechanics of vowels.”

While Sarah Lee and Johnny are nervous about making a leap of faith with a different sounding recor—the first on their own Rte 8 Records—they’re also eager to get the songs into the world. Helsinki Hudson attendees will get lush chamber pop with “Wassaic Way,” funky guitar rock with “Not Feeling It,” Britpop with “Wherever She Is It’s Spring,” raw, Plastic Ono Band fare with “Probably Gone,” and a bit of fist-shaking Americana on “Hurricane Window.”

“The folk world has been amazingly supportive,” Sarah Lee says. “But that’s not all there is with us.”

Wassaic Way CD Release Party
Helsinki Hudson
Saturday, September 7, 7 p.m.
$15 advance, $18 day of show

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