Roger McGuinn - guitars, vocals; Clarence White - guitars, mandolin, vocals; Skip Battin - bass, vocals; Gene Parsons - drums, banjo, harmonica, vocals; Jim Seiter - congas, percussion
Despite being one of the most unstable American bands of the 1960s, The Byrds were also one of the most creative, innovative and influential. Right from the start, the group's music would have an impact on their own influences like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as on subsequent generations of country and alternative rock bands. The Byrds' striking vocal harmonies and the jangly timbre of Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar would fuel their early hits and become the building blocks of a sound that remains compelling to the present day. Unlike most American rock bands of the era that first established their reputations on stage, The Byrds initially established their reputation in the studio. Over the course of their decade-long career and numerous personnel changes, this would gradually reverse itself.
By 1970, when many of the band's contemporaries had split up or were nearing the end of their creativity, the double album Untitled had redefined The Byrds' sound. Containing both live and studio recordings, all four members contributed material, displaying a solid group effort. Their extensive touring schedule during this era helped develop a new legion of fans and The Byrds would finally gain a deserved reputation as a compelling live band.
It is no wonder that this occurred, as Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and Skip Battin had indeed become the most enduring lineup of The Byrds, performing and recording together from September of 1969 well into 1972, shortly before the ill-fated reunion project of the original five members commenced. Both critics and fans universally agreed that this early-1970s lineup was far more accomplished in concert than any previous configuration of The Byrds. They would find wildly enthusiastic audiences nearly everywhere they played, especially in Europe where their popularity had never really waned.
Ironically, as the group became accomplished performing musicians, they would simultaneously experience decreasing satisfaction with their studio recordings. Regardless, the live performances benefited from both old and new music, and The Byrds certainly had a wealth of acoustic and electric material on which to develop their concert repertoire. Performing songs from throughout their wide-ranging career, they were one of very few bands capable of forging both a spiritual and musical unity between the two decades. Their studio projects may have become less satisfying, but it mattered little to those attending their concerts as their most inspired and innovative moments now almost exclusively resulted on stage.
Much credit goes to Roger McGuinn for maintaining a vision for the group and keeping this lineup together, but the secret weapon was guitarist Clarence White. It was White's innovative stringbending techniques, combined with McGuinn's signature sound, that extended the band's explorations of country music within a heavier rock framework. White was an utterly unique talent, with blazing guitar chops, a razor sharp sound and astounding musical sensibilities. He was equally potent in both acoustic and electric settings and possessed the all-too-rare ability to think in terms of a soulful, unified sound. This was a key ingredient to the cohesiveness and strength of The Byrds' live performances during this era.
Never before heard, presented here is one of the more legendary live performances of The Byrds' career, recorded on opening night of their last ever London engagement on January 16, 1972. Despite this final U.K. swing being booked on short notice, with practically nonexistent advertising, word on the street spread rapidly and the show sold out with a second show added the following evening. Much has been written about this night, including the fact that technical issues were apparent with the P.A. system. Largely a result of grounding issues between the group's American gear and The Rainbow's electrical system, nearly every published reviewer agreed that The Byrds easily rose above it and delivered a highly engaging performance. What makes this all the more delightful is that the issues plaguing the P.A. system that night do not affect the recording!
Newly mixed from the original 2-inch 16 track master reels captured by The Rolling Stones' mobile unit parked outside the venue, this spectacular recording not only captures a sparkling performance, but is also a sonic delight from beginning to end. With Clarence White's sizzling Telecaster panned to the left and McGuinn's jangly Rickenbacker to the right, this stereo mix duplicates the original stage imaging, putting listeners directly in the "sweet spot." Rarely has Clarence White's electric guitar playing been better captured on stage and the same goes for McGuinn, Battin and Parsons' performances as well. Listeners can clearly enjoy the most intense interplay between these musicians, while still having the ability to clearly discern the nuances of each individual's contribution. Headphone listening is a particularly rewarding experience.
The London audience certainly played a role in the success of this evening as well, as their enthusiastic response inspires the musicians. Clarence is in particularly incendiary form, both in terms of his mind boggling stringbending technique and his unique sound, partially achieved by playing through a Fender Vibratone Leslie speaker that he controlled via a foot pedal. On this recording, these nuances are clearly heard and fans of his highly innovative electric guitar playing are in for the same treat that Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck experienced, both of whom were watching from the wings.
The performance is structured in three parts, beginning and concluding with electric material, with an acoustic set sandwiched in between. The set kicks off with the standard opener of this era, McGuinn and Jacques Levy's "Lover Of The Bayou." Like much of McGuinn's original material from this era, the song was written for an aborted stage show project called Gene Tryp, which was based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (The stage show's name was simply an anagram of Ibsen's title). Set during the Civil War, "Lover Of The Bayou" is a character study of a Louisiana voodoo man, with McGuinn serving as its witchdoctor narrator. Threatening and tense, this opener finds the entire band in strong form, particularly Clarence White, whose unique touch and expert grasp of distortion are largely responsible for evoking the song's sinister tone.
Two classic songs from the '60s follow with "So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star" and "Mr. Spaceman," with the former rocking harder than it ever has and the latter providing a textbook example of the group's fusion of country and rock elements. Both of these numbers serve to bridge the gap between the old and new, establishing a link between The Byrds' current lineup and the original incarnation.
Clarence White next fronts the band on a cover of Larry Murray's "Bugler." Considered by many to be the best song on the band's new Farther Along album, this mid-tempo ballad is a touching farewell to a beloved pet's passing, with Clarence singing lead vocal and the group providing tasteful instrumental support. Unlike the more acoustic based studio recording, where Clarence played mandolin, this ringing rendition is fully electric and features use of the Fender Vibratone to modify his sound.
For the next number McGuinn switches to banjo for another song written for the Gene Tryp project. Featured on the Byrdmaniax album, the jaunty "I Want To Grow Up To Be A Politician" continues in the country-rock mode, with White adeptly using his B-Bender and Vibratone to achieve the effect of a pedal steel guitar.
They wrap up the initial electric sequence with the medley that first appeared on the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album, which McGuinn introduces as "one of Bob Dylan's more reactionary songs." Beginning with Dylan's "My Back Pages," which had also been recorded by the original lineup, here the song serves as a launching point for a brief but ferocious blues jam that skillfully segues into a cover of Jimmy Reed's classic "Baby What You Want Me To Do."
An intimate four song acoustic set is sandwiched in the middle of the performance. This begins with White front and center displaying some of his outstanding bluegrass picking on "Black Mountain Rag." A rare acoustic rendition of the Dylan song that first established The Byrds reputation, "Mr. Tambourine Man," follows. Unlike the truncated readings by earlier incarnations of the band, here McGuinn addresses all of the verses, providing plenty of time for delicate interplay between the acoustic guitars. Even the vocal harmonies, with both Parsons and Battin contributing, are surprisingly strong here. Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," one of the songs originally featured on the group's groundbreaking Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album featuring hot banjo pickin' from Gene Parsons, is equally impressive. The acoustic set is capped off with bass player Skip Battin fronting the group on another bluegrass classic, a cover of Charlie Monroe's "Rolling In My Sweet Baby's Arms." With McGuinn on acoustic guitar, Parsons on banjo and White playing gorgeous mandolin embellishments, this is thoroughly delightful.
Returning to electric instrumentation, The Byrds kick things back into high gear with the leadoff track to their latest album, McGuinn's humorous retro rocker "Tiffany Queen." A beautiful fully electric version of another of the Gene Tryp numbers, "Chestnut Mare" follows. One of McGuinn's greatest songs, one would be hard pressed to find a better performance than this one, which features superb vocals and White's sensitive and delicate fingerpicking throughout. Taken at a hyperdrive tempo, with Battin and Parsons propelling McGuinn and White, the gospel flavored "Jesus Is Just Alright" cranks things up another notch. A surprise then surfaces with a fully engaged performance of the Dylan anthem "Chimes of Freedom," rarely performed by any incarnation of the group. This too is thoroughly satisfying, setting the stage for the most extraordinary sequence of the set - a blazing improvisation on "Eight Miles High."
The improvisation begins from scratch, but in a matter of seconds White, Battin and Parsons have developed an aggressive jam that heads directly for the stratosphere. For the first three minutes McGuinn lays low, allowing White to fully cut loose, while he just enjoys the ride. When McGuinn thoroughly engages three minutes in, the merits of this outstanding mix become obvious, with White's buzz-saw Telecaster to the left and Roger's Rickenbacker sounding downright demented to the right. For the next several minutes, they venture deep into psychedelic territory. All versions of "Eight Miles High" from this era capture the group in highly adventurous form, but this version stands out for its slashing intensity. Clarence is in typically astounding form, but it is McGuinn's raunchy, just-on-the-verge-of-feedback, Coltrane-influenced improvisations that take this soaring so high. Eventually, McGuinn and White drop out allowing the rhythm section to solo. Unlike the impressive live version on Untitled, this performance does not contain a lengthy drum solo. Instead, Battin and Parsons improvise as a tight unit and the results are expressive and enjoyable. Around the 10-minute mark, White and McGuinn dive back in and within seconds the group is blazing away again. The inspired interplay continues as they begin maneuvering into "Eight Miles High" proper. McGuinn's searing leads signal the transition when, at nearly 14 minutes in, they finally get around to singing the first verse! Afterwards, the group is still burning so bright that they sail right off again, never returning to the lyric. After another minute or two, this "Eight Miles High" improvisation comes to a crashing close, followed by the band's signature outro instrumental, "Hold It," to end the set.
Amidst rapturous applause, The Byrds return to the stage for an extended encore. Catering to numerous requests from the audience, they first deliver the shit-kicking barn dance instrumental "Nashville West." A showcase for both White and Parsons, this features Parsons' most propulsive country flavored drumming and, as McGuinn aptly introduces it, "the dancing fingers of Mr. Clarence White." Another vintage surprise follows with one of founding member Gene Clark's finest compositions, "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better." Originally featured on the group's debut album, this song contains several strong melodic hooks and again finds the band in strong vocal form. It is quite obvious they are thoroughly enjoying themselves and one can only wonder why this number wasn't a permanent staple of the live repertoire. Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" follows, which particularly resonates with the English audience. A staple of The Byrds' earliest live repertoire, as well as The Beatles' (where it served to showcase George Harrison during their early years), this is performed with delirious abandon. Here The Byrds recall the passion and excitement of early Beatlemania, before veering off into a second, lengthier stab at their bluesy outro instrumental, "Hold It," which brings this thoroughly engaging performance to an end.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
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