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Roger McGuinn: I Swear It’s Not Too Late….

January 18, 2010

Back Pages

In Back Pages, Jay shares concert reviews and notes on all matters musical from his personal archives. In this installment, Jay offers a review of a May 24, 2004 concert performed by legendary Byrds leader and folk-rock hero Roger McGuinn. The venue: The Kentucky Theatre’s Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour, Lexington, Kentucky.

As the final, chiming notes rang from Roger McGuinn’s custom-made 7-string acoustic, and as the savvy among the audience fervently sang the famous chorus from “Turn, Turn, Turn” along with him, it became clear that those words were meant to express far more than the Biblical text conveyed. It was here that McGuinn revealed his implicit personal philosophy to us: it’s not too late. To make peace, to make a difference, to embrace new ideas and tools, to realize your potential, to keep pushing boundaries, to explore novel territory while revering the old. Indeed, this seemed to be a fitting characterization of McGuinn’s life’s work, from the early 60’s as a Brille Building song man, to his formative folk years, his cutting-edge pioneering in the world of folk- and country-rock with the Byrds, and his current solo work.

A capacity crowd braved heavy traffic and a hard rain a-fallin’ to pack the Kentucky’s State Theatre on May 24 to enjoy the Hall of Fame inductee and founding Byrd’s full Woodsongs radio broadcast. Currently touring in support of his recent solo release—the eclectic, independently distributed Limited Edition, McGuinn proved to be in fine form, both vocally and instrumentally.

It was apparent from the opening strum of the countrified “James Alley Blues” that McGuinn, whose Rickenbacker 12-string “jingle-jangle” inspired the likes of George Harrison, Tom Petty, and R.E.M. (as well as countless contemporary indie and jangle pop purveyors), is in no way content to rest on his laurels. Instead, his reputation for synthesis and innovation was further bolstered, not just by his infamous marriage of Seeger-Dylan folk and electrified Brit Invasion styles, but by purely technical innovation. He delivered this old-fashioned folk blues by way of a new-fangled 7-string guitar of his own devising (manufactured by Martin). In order to be able to recreate many of those unforgettable 12-string sounds and yet still have the note-bending flexibility of a six-string for newer tunes, McGuinn added an additional string at the higher-pitched B string position. The guitar itself embodies the man’s experimental ethic as it lets him play most anything from his back pages, er, catalog, as well as his more recent revisitations of pre-Byrds folk and post-Byrds rock. He started out playing trad folk in the Village, rose to fame on the “Polaris rocket” of popularity courtesy of his 12-strings-n-harmonies sound with the Byrds, secured his solo fame in later days with the star-studded offering Treasures from the Folk Den series and the solo autobiographical Live from Mars, and now returns to a hybrid of both on Limited Edition. (Inhale.)

The American equivalent of the U.K.’s Richard Thompson, a self-professed “preservationist and archivist” of the beloved folk styles of his native U.S., also very much enjoys juxtaposing them with more current styles and trends. McGuinn asserts that he has never stopped listening to music of every style, time period, and country of origin–even to the chatter of hardened cross-country truck-drivers. All these are fodder for McGuinn’s boundless imagination. “South Bound 95,” the first of handful of heartfelt audience sing-alongs, is an ode inspired by the CB-radio chatter overheard by McGuinn:

Drivin’ high, drivin’ low / In the rain and in the snow.

Moreover, he hasn’t stopped exploring methods for reaching his audience (and adding to it). He displays a relatively enlightened attitude when it comes to his views on the Internet potential to democratize music and its distribution. He offers free MP3 previews and downloads of his work on his Web site (www.mcguinn.com) and describes the Internet’s effect on music as being “much like FM radio” in its infancy; it is not a threat so much as another avenue for getting exposure (and maybe even eking out a living). He sees computers and the DIY spirit of home recording as nothing short of critical for emerging bands, especially in the bleak world of the major labels. These are refreshing sentiments coming from an industry veteran, especially compared to a lot of the Chicken Littles out there (ahem, Lars Ulrich, et al).

“Echoes Live,” also from his current release, proved a fiery instrumental cross between the Byrd’s own “Eight Miles High” and the work of Andres Segovia. Descending, dramatic arpeggios evoke the Spanish guitar inflections of underrated Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s “Spanish Caravan.” Come to think of it, Krieger isn’t a stranger to Segovia himself. Wonderfully, no one suffers in the slightest for my comparison.

An impromptu “Heartbreak Hotel” accompanied his explanation of how he got into music and guitar in the first place . He wanted to have the attitude, the swagger , of Elvis and the songwriting talent of Bobby Dylan Zimmerman (a common story to artists of his generation–if it ain’t Dylan or the Fab Four, then it’s Elvis. Or all of ’em). Again, the theme recurs: the past’s in the future and the future’s in the past (did I just blow your mind right there? You’re welcome?). McGuinn also illustrated the difference in approach evident in his fluid, Beatles-harmony-infused “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s folkier reading, with all proper respect paid. The crowd sing-along produced some fine harmonies to McGuinn’s gentle melody, many of which wafted over from the direction of the Woodsongs sound crew

The warm, stirring benediction of “May the Road Rise to Meet You” (based on the traditional Irish blessing)–adapted and expanded by him and his wife Camilla–wrapped up the Woodsongs broadcast. But, McGuinn didn’t quit playing once the tape stopped rolling. He performed an encore featuring tracks from post-Rolling-Thunder-Revue album Cardiff Rose and included the song that, fittingly, started it all for him. Perhaps most fittingly, it ended the evening memorably and meaningfully.

As many of us reacted with delight to hear the first, ringing chords of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the point of McGuinn’s overall message hit home. The track–Camilla later told me backstage–is his own favorite in what is a staggering oeuvre. We were encouraged to hope, to evolve, to embrace openness. Some of us needed to hear that message, and right at that particular time. I won’t name names.

It may very well be true that there is nothing new under the sun. But McGuinn does well to remind us to never stop searching for new ways and opportunities to approach hallowed forms, to cultivate a fresh, positive mindset, and make something all one’s own, no matter what stretch of the trail you’re on. To quote another folkie (dressed as he was in the regalia of Bacchanalia): there’s still time to change the road you’re on….

I swear it’s not too late.

–“Turn! Turn! Turn!

Set list:

  1. James Alley Blues
  2. St. James Infirmary
  3. Southbound 95
  4. Echoes Live
  5. Heartbreak Hotel
  6. Mr. Tambourine Man
  7. May the Road Rise to Meet You
  8. Jolly Roger (encore)
  9. Dreamland (encore)
  10. Turn! Turn! Turn! (encore)

The full broadcast of McGuinn’s performance, including the post-Woodsongs encore, can be found at http://woodsongs.com/showlist.asp, or you can watch the video here. Vist http://www.mcguinn.com for information, downloads, and tour dates.

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