In the canon of alternative guitar heroes, Roger McGuinn is right up there with Steve Cropper, Curtis Mayfield and his fellow Byrds’ old boy Clarence White.
Alongside Gene Clark and David Crosby, McGuinn’s command of traditional styles and Beatles-influenced pop saw him create a blueprint folk-rock just as the first wave of Beatlemania crashed over the USA in the spring of 1964. By the time The Byrds had bought instruments to match those of The Beatles including, crucially, McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker 360 and later the 370, the template was complete – their chiming abridged cover of Dylan’s (then) unreleased Mr Tambourine Man providing them with an instant hit in 1965.
The stories behind the formation of The Byrds and various episodes from their career, as well as McGuinn’s subsequent work with luminaries like Dylan (on the Rolling Thunder Revue) and Tom Petty make for a thoroughly engaging couple of hours in the man’s company.
Armed with only his trusty 12-string Ricky and the equally distinctive, custom-built seven-string Martin, McGuinn revisits his back pages like a space cowboy lecturer who never quite manages to convey what it actually felt like to live each episode even though the details were recounted with rehearsed precision. A walking, talking Wikipedia entry, I get the feeling it’s the same show night after night.
McGuinn’s voice is unimpaired by age, his guitar playing is better than ever and he’s a master of interpretation – yet he remains strangely remote. Of course you could argue he gives as much of himself as he needs to and with a set list that includes All I Want To Do, Eight Miles High (augmented by beautifully executed Segovia-esque runs), King of the Hill, Turn! Turn! Turn!, The Ballad of Easy Rider, 5D, My Back Pages, Bells of Rhymney, Chimes of Freedom, Truck Drivin’ Man, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better who’s complaining?
Certainly not me, although it’s worth noting that not even Roger McGuinn’s take on What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? can save it from Davy Jones’ Locker of inanity.
- photo by John Chiasson