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Roger McGuinn

Park West - Chicago

June 29, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2000, Volume 7, #8

Written by John Metzger


Between June 1965 and August 1968, The Byrds released six seminal albums that defined folk-, country-, and psychedelic-rock: Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Though their high-flying success was brief, with these albums, the group’s legacy was firmly laid and helped to pave the way for later acts like The Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Jayhawks, R.E.M., and Travis.

The Byrds was founded in 1964, when David Crosby walked into The Troubadour — Los Angeles’ famed folk club — where Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark had been working on some material. He immediately joined the duo, adding his voice to theirs. It helped, too, that Crosby had access to a recording studio. Shortly thereafter, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke were hired, rounding out the group.

While no one can deny the immense talent that drifted through The Byrds over the years — Clarence White, Gram Parsons, Gene Parsons, and Skip Battin all served time with them — it was Roger McGuinn who stood at the center of it all. His unique vision, his sense of rhythm, harmony, and timing, and his jangly 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar made the band stand out as something different from the rest.

The members of The Byrds have long since gone their separate ways — reuniting for a dismal outing in 1973, as well as for several shows surrounding the release of their phenomenal 1990 box set. In the meantime, McGuinn turned to a solo career, which peaked with the 1991 release of the enthralling Back from Rio album. While nearly a decade has passed without any new material, McGuinn continues to tour — delivering startlingly gorgeous performances that serve as both career retrospectives and history lessons in American folk music. In addition, his act has tightened considerably, with between-song banter that helps tell the story of his life.

On June 29, McGuinn returned to Chicago — where his love affair with American roots tunes began at the Old Town School of Folk Music — for a performance at the Park West. This time around, he brought along guitarist Paul Eaton and bass player Dave Matthews, and the trio format gave his songs a different perspective from those presented on his solo outings. On an incendiary rendition of Eight Miles High, Matthews’ bass roared underneath McGuinn’s churning guitar, while on Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, Paul Eaton masterfully textured the song with a gleeful banjo flavor.

Working without a drummer proved to be a wise choice. It gave McGuinn and his compatriots plenty of room to maneuver, while drawing an even firmer link between folk and rock music. As such, the subtleties of the songs were able to spring to life, riding along on Matthews’ simple, but elegant bass patterns. In addition, Eaton’s quiet, steady acoustic guitar motifs allowed the music to flow smoothly behind McGuinn’s own exquisite guitar work.

If there was a problem with the concert, it lay within its nostalgic glow. It’s no surprise that McGuinn continues to draw heavily upon his work with The Byrds. Yet, there are so many other classic, albeit more obscure, Byrds’ songs that continue to lay dormant (Just a Season, Get to You, and All the Things — to name a few). Further, McGuinn continues to neglect his own outstanding album Back from Rio, and once again performed only the best-known track King of the Hill, which he co-wrote with Tom Petty.

However, while McGuinn may not have any new compositions of his own to perform, over the past few years he has still managed to introduce new material to his sets. These songs have come primarily from old folk recordings — such as Richard Brown’s James Alley Blues and Lead Belly’s Easter — with which he has reconnected. In addition, McGuinn also delivered more contemporary selections like his stirring cover of Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town and a beautiful and haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

Yet, this is a difficult path to pursue; a hard line to straddle. Though McGuinn’s legacy is firmly intact — both by the endless stream of groups he has influenced and by his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame — by waiting so long between albums, he risks falling over into the abyss of has-been nostalgia. Countless other artists from the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s have long ago done just that, and it’s a fall from which few are able to recover. McGuinn, however, seems smarter and wiser than the rest and surely won’t allow this to happen. Fans can only hope that he is charting the course for his next release by diving so deeply into the past.

In an all-to-rare occurrence, Jam Productions and the Park West found an opening act that actually complemented the main performer, rather than just killing time. Chris Mills opened the show with a captivating 40-minute set, which owed a tremendous debt to Gram Parsons. Wispy pedal steel flourishes lapped at his songs’ hazy, alcohol-soaked lyrics, while Mills’ vocals conveyed a similar sense of yearning, loss and regret. As his set wore on, he did become somewhat one-dimensional, but there’s no question that latter day Byrds fans were pleased with his performance.

Back from Rio is available from Barnes & Noble.
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