McGUINN-HILLMAN SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR–SANDY SPRINGS, GEORGIA, OCTOBER 21, 2018…A HANDY TEN

How it was on at least one night of a tour that keeps getting extended. If it comes near you, see it if you possibly can.

1)  The band comes on. Then McGuinn and Hillman walk in from the wings and launch into the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” which turn out to be as recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.

2) McGuinn turns out to be the (even) better story teller. First story of the night involves the first time he heard the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”

“Sounded like bluegrass to me….”

3) Turns out he also does a killer Bob Dylan imitation. Anyone who hears him do it just before he demonstrates how he changed the dynamics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” completely (and made it a groundbreaking hit–and one of the most important records of the twentieth century–in the process) will no longer need to labor under the illusion that, in forging the Dylan/Beatles combination that came to be called folk rock (and which everyone thought was as natural as breathing the minute after it happened), the Byrds were somehow lesser.

4) Chris Hillman: “It is true that Gram Parsons and I met in a bank….” I don’t remember if that was before or after he explained how he wrote his first song when he came home from a jazz session with Hugh Masekela’s band. He does not explain why it came out a country song (“Time Between”) except to say that he does not know. This leads to other stories about actually going to Nashville with Gram in tow. The best involves McGuinn demonstrating a riff on the three-finger banjo to one of Nashville’s top session men.

You better let me do that, the fellow said.

5) Marty Stuart’s band is in support and Marty steps out in front a few times. His first memorable moment is just after the intermission when he comes out to warm up the crowd for the second half and plays something from his new album that incorporates the basic riffs from “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”

Which turn out to be as instantly recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And “My Back Pages.”

6) Then it’s on to Sweetheart material proper and McGuinn’s complete intro to “I Like the Christian Life.”

“When we recorded this song, I didn’t know what it meant. I do now.”

7) And, of course, the umpteenth retelling of being given the cold shoulder by Ralph Emery. Still funny. Still painful. Still suggestive of lost possibilities for American music for generations to come. (He who shall remain nameless McGuinn says. Ralph! the crowd shouts.) Followed by a version of “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” that should be no more than a goof and instead, stings like a rattler. The record sounded like a petulant whine. The version I heard Sunday a week ago was tougher, meaner and funnier. By a factor of ten.

8) The musical highlight of the evening…out of nowhere: “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with McGuinn, Hillman and Stuart in three-part harmony. I’ve only been to the one show so I don’t know if they capture this every time out, but for one night in Atlanta, at least, it was beyond even the Everly Brothers. If Brian Wilson had been there he wouldn’t have needed LSD to see God again.

I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The crowd consisted largely of aging hippies. I think it’s safe to say they had, on average, a minimum of three beers apiece in them by then. And if anyone had dropped a pin between first note and last, it would have sounded like an atom bomb. (Avoid the versions available on YouTube which have spotty sound and barely hint at the quality of what I heard.)

9) For an encore: Proof that, on the right stage with the right sound system, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” rocks as hard as anything that has ever hit the air. Then the inevitable Now people tell us we sure do a great version of that Tom Petty song…which segues nicely into a tribute to Petty, the highlight of which is Stuart and his band doing a bluegrass version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that builds and builds and lays to rest any question of whether Tom Petty was a genius.

10) A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late….

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have lost none of their formidable musical skills and they both sing far better than they did in any clips from the sixties I’ve come across.

These days they’re master showmen as well, but, better than that, they’re Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the surviving core of the greatest band assembled on American shores after Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Just to be in a hall with them was a life-defining experience for me. That there would be so much real magic was almost too much to hope for.

Brother, I’d do it again.

And I confess I didn’t realize this was as close as they would get to either Waycross (Gram Parsons’ principal childhood home) or South Carolina (of the many tall pines)….but, looking back, there might have been a ghost or two wandering about.

FROM THE ROAD…

I’m on laptops so posts will be brief.

Suffice  it to say that McGuinn and Hillman were all I hoped they would be.

When you have as few heroes as I do, the only question that  matters when you’ve spent forty years wondering if you would ever share a brief space with them on  this plane is whether it was worth it.

It  was worth  it. Every minute.

STARTING AROUND FRIDAY…

…I’m going to be busy for a while.

Friend’s birthday party Friday night. High school reunion (hurricane damage permitting) Saturday night. Sunday, I leave for a nine-day trip in which I’ll be visiting North Carolina (my brother), Nashville (my nephew) and Memphis (my oldest sister). On that first Sunday, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be in Atlanta to catch the tail-end of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman’s tour celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

I’m looking forward to all of it but especially the concert. McGuinn and Hillman are in their seventies. Though both still tour a good bit on their own, they don’t get together all that often. Any time might be the last time. My bucket list is pretty short (limited to my living heroes: them, Mary Weiss, a truly reunited Go-Go’s and Al Green’s church…that’s about it). Knocking off even one of them is a big deal.

The plan originally involved catching the show at the Ryman in Nashville (see nephew above) on the 8th. Then Durham on the 15th became a possibility (see brother above). In the end, between work schedules (my nephew’s and mine), my brother’s travel plans (he and his wife took a New England cruise for his 75th birthday), and being priced out of various venues (the Ryman went from $35 to $400 while I was trying to get my act together–eventually came down but it was too late by then), Atlanta became the only option. Looks like a great venue and the ticket was $50 so it all worked out.

I say all that by way of explaining why I may be away from the blog for long stretches between now and the end of the month. If I can get to the blog and have a chance to post from the road I will…and I plan to post on a regular basis between now and Sunday, time and energy permitting.

But, in any case, I don’t want you to think I won’t be thinking of you! Because without all who visit, comment, suggest and make me smile, I’d be diminished more than I can say:

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #1: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968)

[NOTE: I have an attachment to album covers in part because, for me, they were a big way into the music. Since I had often not actually heard most (or sometimes any) of the music inside, when I started chasing the music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties, I studied LP covers for clues.

But, more importantly, I also “felt” them. I formed ideas about what I was going to hear and there were times when it actually took me years to really hear the music if the LP cover hadn’t done a good enough job of prepping me for the experience.

I suspect there are some fine albums I haven’t managed to appreciate yet for this very reason–though, of course I can’t say which ones. Yet.

Later, much later, I took to framing them and hanging them around my house, collecting books dedicated to them and so forth, but even these things only go so far. In the heart of the rock and roll era, LP covers were a world unto themselves. So I’m gonna start sharing some of my favorites, some with extensive commentary, some with just a caption–whatever strikes me as appropriate.]

NOTORIOUSBYRD

To really appreciate this one, you have to keep in mind what surrounded it on the racks at the time of its release in January of 1968. Not that I was cognizant at the time–I was told to cross to the other side of the mall when I passed the record store because, invariably, even in the mall, people who were clearly dope-smoking hippies hung about the place. But I’m familiar enough, in retrospect, to imagine the impact.

Granted, the impact was mostly on the future. Notorious did not sell particularly well and was the first Byrds’ LP to fail to produce a Top 40 single.

This is from the age of Sgt. Pepper and Their Satanic Majesties’ Request and Forever Changes, though, and it’s a telling peek at what was just around the corner. Yes, there were plain-song equivalents around, too, in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, but few were so prescient. You can look at this now and feel (not “hear” because once you got to the vinyl, The Notorious Byrd Brothers was its own thing and not much like anything else that had ever happened or ever would, out there even by the Byrds’ other-worldly standards) the coming of CCR, Southern Rock, California Rock, Country Rock, Outlaw Country, Alt-Country and even some elements of Grunge.

Some version of Cowboy Hippie, then, or at very least Cowboy Long-Hair.

And when Peter Fonda said he modeled his character in Easy Rider after Roger McGuinn (pictured in the middle here–Dennis Hopper was channeling David Crosby, who left the band part-way through the recording of Notorious and, thus, wasn’t included in the LP cover shoot), I always felt like it was this Roger McGuinn he specifically meant.

This was the last Byrds’ album released by the original band. Michael Clarke (pictured at the right) would depart before their next LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (which had a more immediately visceral cover and, with Gram Parsons on board, actually did sound at least sort of like “the future.” though it still sounded like a lot of other things, too). Chris Hillman (left), split not long after that.

But while they lasted–and however many copies of any given record they sold–you could always tell what was coming down the pike by what the Byrds got up to.

Even if it was just messing around in a horse barn with camera shutters clicking.