The lights went down and the unmistakable sound of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker filled the intimate space known simply as the Concert Hall in New York City. McGuinn emerged from backstage, strumming the opening chords of “My Back Pages.”
Following up on the successful 50th anniversary Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour, McGuinn’s solo show celebrates not only his own rich musical legacy but the history of American folk rock. “I’d like to take you through my own back pages,” he said, sitting down and trading in the Rickenbacker for his six-string Martin acoustic. First up were the songs from his Sweetheart album—“Nothing Was Delivered,” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
Originally from Chicago, McGuinn, born James (he changed his name to Roger at the suggestion of an Eastern mystic to invite better karma), began recording with major folk acts at the age of 17. He traveled to Los Angeles and later to New York, arriving in Greenwich Village a year before Bob Dylan. His tales of the early days on the folk scene with the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez might have been familiar to his loyal fans, but more surprising were his stories about backing Bobby Darin in Las Vegas and an aborted television career on “Petticoat Junction.”
Back in LA, McGuinn made a musical connection with Gene Clark. David Crosby was allowed to join them because he had access to a recording studio. The trio added Michael Clarke to play drums despite his limited experience and lack of a drum kit, then recruited Chris Hillman, a highly regarded bluegrass musician, to play bass. Columbia Records asked them to produce a single before agreeing to release an entire album. “We knew we had to do come up with something great,” McGuinn explained. “We weren’t sure any of our songs were quite right, then someone told us about an unreleased Bob Dylan tune.” Adding a lively beat and high harmonies, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became an international hit for a band called The Byrds.
Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was another monster hit, and suddenly The Byrds were being billed as “America’s Answer to The Beatles.” They toured England and when flying home wrote the song “Eight Miles High”, which generated controversy here in the States as being about drugs.
McGuinn opened the second set with “So You Wanna Be a Rock n Roll Star” and talked at length about Tom Petty. “I loved the songs Tom wrote and the way he played our songs.” As a tribute, McGuinn performed “American Girl”, recalling the days when he toured with The Heartbreakers in 1987. McGuinn also covered “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and told how Dylan penned the first few lines of what became “The Ballad of Easy Rider”. “Give this McGuinn,” Dylan supposedly said. “He’ll know what to do with it.”
McGuinn restricts all photography, including press coverage, to his encore. It’s a refreshing policy, eliminating people holding up cell phones that are distracting to the artist and to audience members. His three-song encore included Gene Clark’s classic “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”, and an acoustic original based on the Irish blessing “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”
The Concert Hall is one of Manhattan’s finest performance spaces, a church-like meeting space that’s part of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It was the perfect setting for reliving a bit of ‘60s idealism through the music of one of that decade’s notable contributors.
Check out a gallery of photos below from the show courtesy of photographer Lou Montesano.