Byrds Flying High…
Where do you begin, with Roger McGuinn? Well you can start with the hits. At his one previous concert I booked at St George’s about eight years ago (there was another in 2009, done as a hire, that I didn’t see), he opened with ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ and over two long sets covered just about every great Byrds song you could name, from ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and ‘All I Really Want to Do’ to ‘So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star’, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ and ‘My Back Pages’, in a stream of solid gold anthems that just went on and on, gathering momentum all the way. There were Dylan songs, Pete Seeger songs, Woody Guthrie songs (‘Pretty Boy Floyd’), Gene Clark songs and Roger McGuinn songs, all played as perfectly as you could wish for, with plenty of Rickenbacker jangle and that trademark, slightly nasal vocal intonation that together represent the authentic McGuinn experience you remember from the records. I can’t recall whether he did ‘Eight Miles High’ or ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ – and he does do them, as this set-list blog attests – but he played a truly spine-tingling version one of my all-time favourites, the beautiful ‘Chestnut Mare’. He’s even been known to cover Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, which was Petty’s homage to Roger McGuinn. If this time round he plays the Byrds’ ironic homage to redneck culture, ‘Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man’, I’ll be in hillbilly heaven.
Just to say that Roger McGuinn performs these songs, however, doesn’t even get close. He’s such a star turn, and so expert a guitarist for solo shows like this, that the songs are no by-rote versions buoyed up on a wave of sentimental goodwill, but definitive readings of absolute classics of the pop/folk/whatever repertoire, and McGuinn delivers them with true fidelity, honouring their origins while re-fashioning where necessary with contemporary updatings of the original chords and structure. He’ll play new tunes and traditional tunes, too, so the history comes all mixed up.
It has to help that McGuinn probably doesn’t need to sing these songs, or to go out on tour at all if he doesn’t want to. More than 50 years into his stellar career, he is in the happy position of playing live shows not for money or ego reinforcement, but because, as a time-served career musician, this is what he enjoys doing, and he knows he does it very, very well. He has also learned to tour in comfort and style, travelling with his wife Camilla, taking the train between carefully selected hotels in carefully selected cities, visiting historical sites, and uploading their experiences onto his blog as they go. The latest entry describes their voyage across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, and eventual arrival in London to take up temporary residence in a Kensington flat they’d chosen because the unusual decor had appealed to Roger’s sense of aesthetics. He also keeps busy curating his wonderful Folk Den website, a hugely important resource for traditional music.
And we end with a little known factoid: those ringing Rickenbacker arpeggios are quite possibly adapted from the five-string banjo-picking techniques McGuinn learned as a teenager at Chicago’s Old Town School of Music. Who knows for sure, but there could even be a bit of banjo-picking on stage at St George’s. Guitar-jangling, however, is a dead cert.