Published on March 19th, 2015 | by Ballard Lesemann


Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie Mesmerize Theatre 99

Massachusetts-based singer/songwriters Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie — a husband-and-wife duo with a talent for blending harmony-laden folk music with pop, rock ‘n’ roll and country — returned to Charleston on March 12 for an intimate performance at Theatre 99.

Under the name Sittin’ in a Tree, Charleston-based singer/guitarist Mark Bryan (of Hootie and the Blowfish. Occasional Milkshake) and his wife Wendy Bryan gracefully opened the show with a cute and lively set of melodic originals, countrified renditions, and amusing stories. A polite and very attentive crowd of about 50 showed their approval with boisterous applause between each song.

Irion had been out in California over the winter working on a forthcoming solo album, so this show was a casual warm-up gig for him and and Guthrie (the daughter of folksinger Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of folk icon Woody Guthrie) as they prepared for their spring tour in support of their latest studio album Wassaic Way.

Singing in rich harmonies and switching roles as lead vocalists, Irion and Guthrie carefully navigated through their set, from sparse, breezy ballads and slow-moving acoustic anthems to more upbeat fare. Some of the more memorable highlights included tunes related to Woody Guthrie and the Guthrie family archives. They invited their daughter on stage for a version of Woody’s “Go Waggaloo” (the titled track from their 2009 kids’ album), and premised their rendition of Woody’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” with the story of Irion being the grand nephew of author John Steinbeck, whose book The Grapes of Wrath actually inspired the song.

The simple and elegant dual acoustic rhythm guitar work between Irion and Guthrie propelled much of the set. Irion’s occasional solos were effectively spare and emphatic (“9 Out of 10 Time” stood out), and his Dylan-esque harmonica playing peppered much of the set (the Katrina-themed “Hurricane Window” helped wrap the set). A delicate intensity filled the room through much of their set, and the audience sat enthralled and impressed.

At one point, they joked about the first and only time they’d played at Theatre 99 — 15 years ago in the venue’s original location near the Market. Let’s hope they make it back to this stage much sooner that next time.

Photos by Ballard Lesemann.



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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