An artist who can name-drop '60s musical legends with ease, his solo show is a look back at the amazing talent and grace that have brought him this far.
City Hall Auditorium
17 September 2016
Humility does a legend good.
With little fanfare, but a brace of songs that continue to influence the direction of American pop, Roger McGuinn strode onto the stage of Waupun City Hall's auditorium and picked up his seven-string Rickenbacher guitar to sing Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." It's one of several Bob Dylan compositions that McGuinn's old band, the Byrds, recorded in their pioneering and popularizing folk rock in the halcyon '60s.
As McGuinn sat down for the remainder of his first set, he said that he picked that Dylan song to open his solo shows because he leads his audience through his own back pages. That tome also contains chronicles of his involvement in the development of jazz rock, which he parsed as synonymous with psychedelia, and country rock. As he sat down for the majority of his two sets, the tall man in the black Alpine hat that has become his trademark in recent years became arguably not only the most famous visitor to stop at this small town for a while, but nearly a friend, one who switched between electric and acoustic guitar and banjo, recalling his musical exploits with a permanent grin and a singing voice that hasn't diminished since he was riding high in the Top 40 a half-century ago.
Anyone familiar with the the Byrds' catalog would expect Dylan interpretations to figure prominently throughout the evening. Not long into the night, MvGuinn went somewhat into deep catalog mode as he assayed the Minnesota bard's two contributions to the soundtrack of the biker movie our host didn't believe was going to be much of a big deal, Easy Rider, which includes one of McGuinn's earliest solo turns in the picture's titular ending theme. An impersonation of the man whose songwriting the Byrds' helped to popularize, as he sang his band's breakthrough hit,. "Mr, Tambourine Man" in the way he and his band mates first heard it, delivered more with humor and heart than tonal accuracy.
McGuinn's honesty about his lyrical benefactor's work led to a less than friendly encounter with Ralph Emery, the country radio DJ who was working at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry home, WSM-AM. The band was plugging "You Ain't Going Nowhere," the lead single from their initial foray into country rock, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. When asked by Emery what the song is about, McGuinn admitted he didn't quite know. much as many people conclude about many Dylan songs. That didn't sit well with Emery, already perturbed that a bunch of hippie longhairs would be, to his mind, carpetbagging on his beloved music. That confrontation resulted in the Dr. Byrd and Mr. Hyde's Emery dis, "Drug Store Truck Drivin Man," which tonight's crowd looked to have fun singing along on its chorus' accusation that Emery led the Ku Klux Klan. If McGuinn's mid-'80s spot backing up the late Vern Gosdin on Emery's Nashville Now cable show and the the interview following are indicative, the former antagonists are now peaceable with each other.
Going deeper still into his old band's catalog allowed McGuinn to be topically timely, as he amiably addressed Brydmaniax's "I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician" to no candidate in particular. "Chestnut Mare," from the Byrds' (Untitled), drew more controversy, at least between the friend in attendance with me, who believes the song to be about a horse, and another folkie bud' who believes the song to be about a woman , thus rendering-to him-the song's line about branding the mare to be somewhere in the vicinity of misogyny. Seemingly married as he has been since the late '70s to Camilla, the amiable lady with whom he has been traveling by van for of his solo touring the last few years and commandeer of his merch' table, misogyny is among the last unsavory behavior I would pin on McGuinn. Actual harm comes, however, to the object of the public domain whaling shanty he sang from his 2011 CD of seafaring songs, CCD (get the pun?). He made clear that he's no longer down with the undue slaughter of those big water bound mammals, though, too.
His biggest solo hit, at least on rock radio, is one born of his meeting and collaborating with a singer so influenced by McGuinn that the erstwhile Byrd almost thought he was listening to something he had forgotten he recorded first he heard...Tom Petty. McGuinn spoke of how reminiscing about John Phillips, main Papa in the Mamas and Papas and a friend of McGuinn's when both were fledgling folk musicians in New York City led to co-writing 1991's "King of the Hill" with Petty. McGuinn's lyricism may be influenced by contemporaries such as Phillips and musical sons like Petty, but his instrumental prowess has grown as well. He made that most evident with "Eight Miles High," a song he has insisted both on the Songfacts website and in person this evening is about an airplane flight and not a drug trip; he played some of his original arrangement and how it's developed to incorporate bits from classical sitarist Ravi Shankar, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and classical guitarist Andres Segovia.
Less heady were the songs with which McGuinn ended the night. "Turn! Turn! Turn!," Pete Seeger's peacenik interpolation of "'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' melody into the third chapter of Ecclesiastes" was one of the Byrds biggest successes and, thus, pretty much a given. At least as much a reflection of the Christianity he has embraced for decades now was the Irish song of benediction with which he sent the three-quarters full auditorium's attendees home. The latter is also a reflection of his interest in the music found in his Folk Den website and on many of his later solo offerings.
It may be hard to top McGuinn for star power to grace the City Hall stage and hose in attendance for his performance there got a living, tuneful history lesson the likes of which aren't likely to be repeated here soon.
-Jamie Lee Rake