The Magic of McGuinn

Old Town School - Chicago, IL

September 17, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, November 1999, Volume 6, #11

Written by John Metzger


On September 17, Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music celebrated the first anniversary of the opening of the Chicago Folk Center with a solo performance by Roger McGuinn. The organization certainly could not have chosen anyone better to headline the event. After all, McGuinn not only was born in the city, but also had first learned about folk music and guitar technique at the school.

Perhaps it was this circularity that prompted McGuinn to fill his set with a number of old folk songs, though he's long been a proponent of preserving these classic selections. Decked out in all black, the singer took the stage and proceeded to deliver about as wide a career retrospective as one could imagine. He performed a handful of timeless, but age-old standards from Buell Kazee and Richard Brown as well as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. Naturally, he included many modern folk classics as well from Bob Dylan and his own extensive catalog. Each song was set-up by a brief story, which served to connect the selections into a seamless set that gave insight into McGuinn and his music.

Of course, McGuinn is best known for his work with The Byrds. He is certainly a pioneer who is brilliant at commingling musical styles first combining folk and rock and then merging rock into country. However, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones vying for the public's attention, The Byrds' were a band that never truly got their proper credit. It wasn't until years later that Sweetheart of the Rodeo was recognized as the classic that it truly is.

For this particular tour, McGuinn brought along his banjo a rare treat that he employed to great effect on Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd. He also had his electric Rickenbacker in tow, which he utilized effectively to flavor Turn! Turn! Turn! and the psychedelic awakening of 5D. McGuinn's sound and technique are unique, and just about every song on the market these days that includes a 12-string guitar is no doubt influenced by his work with The Byrds.

The best offerings of the evening though were those which McGuinn performed on acoustic 12-string. There was a little extra magic in the air on these selections that magnificently brought them to life. Eight Miles High was a sonic delight as its Ravi Shankar-inspired riffs swirled with radiant energy around the cosmic vortex of the melody and lyrics. On Chestnut Mare, the bard transported the audience to the wild west, briefly riding the back of a wild horse across the open plains.

At one point during the concert, McGuinn revealed that his solo acoustic sets had been influenced by Pete Seeger, who performed in this manner after leaving The Weavers. Said McGuinn, "I wasn't sure what to think. How could one guy do what they did?" As he soon found out, Seeger succeeded quite brilliantly, and if anyone is wondering the same thing about McGuinn, he's done equally well for himself too.

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box