Roger McGuinn – Chicago Folk Center (Chicago, IL)
The artistic burden of carrying a mythic, pioneering band’s legacy on one’s shoulders can be overwhelming. Or, as David Crosby once put it, “The Byrds — that’s some heavy shit, man.”
At this celebratory show, Chicago native and ex-Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn carried his legacy quite gracefully, performing Byrds classics with pride and panache. His concert was part of the first-anniversary fete for the Chicago Folk Center, the latest (and greatest) location for the hallowed Old Town School of Folk Music. While many politicians of the 1960s decried folk music as a tool for Commies and other troublemakers, times have changed, as evidenced by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s presence at this gig.
McGuinn’s early musical training at the Old Town has been well documented in numerous interviews and on his 1996 disc Live From Mars. It was only fitting that McGuinn repeat the anecdotes onstage, recalling how he’d learned to play the banjo and the 12-string guitar at the Old Town while he was still a teen.
Unlike, say, Sting (who is rarely referred to nowadays as the “former lead singer of the Police”), McGuinn has never fully escaped the Byrds’ shadow. Although he’s released some fine solo albums, McGuinn will always be remembered for the Byrds’ renditions of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Pete Seeger’s “Bells Of Rhymney” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”; and his own “Mr. Spaceman”, a top-40 hit in 1966.
All these songs were included in the set list, and all were stellar. While it would be easy, and almost forgivable, for McGuinn to deliver rote or cheese-laden readings of these well-worn tunes, the 57-year-old played them as, well, songs. Not as anthems, not as nostalgia-soaked cliches, but simply as melodious compositions. Alternating between banjo, acoustic 12-string guitar, and that famous 12-string Rickenbacker, McGuinn married intricate fingerpickering with passionate, still-supple vocals.
He also deftly played material that predated the merger of folk and rock he helped create. In addition to Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie songs, McGuinn delivered “East Virginia Blues” and “James Alley Blues”, tunes he performed with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett on the 1998 release The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute To The Anthology Of American Folk Music.
Some fans undoubtedly had hoped Tweedy and Bennett would join McGuinn on this night as well, but although it didn’t happen, no one seemed disappointed by this mesmerizing show. Indeed, as McGuinn strummed the opening chords of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the ringing notes filling the acoustically perfect room, one had to pause and realize that this wasn’t some display case in Cleveland or a VH1 documentary. No, this music was flowing from the hands of a vibrant artist, a man with a vast knowledge of the folk tradition and the infectious spirit of a young chestnut mare.