A Byrd in Flight – Eight Miles High

Who: Roger McGuinn (An Evening with Roger McGuinn – solo , mostly acoustic)

Where: Cadogan Hall, London (Just off Sloane Square)

When: 26th September 2014

I last saw Roger McGuinn in concert in 1987. He was third on the bill behind Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and headliner Bob Dylan on “The Temples in Flames” tour as it stopped off in Birmingham at the NEC. Dylan was having an off night and McGuinn’s set was, for me, the highlight of a concert I wouldn’t choose to revisit.

Ironically, McGuinn told the story of how this tour came to be during the set tonight.

It’s that kind of show. Mr McGuinn was unaccompanied and prefaces every song with a story about its origins or some anecdote that comes to mind that he associates with a particular composition.

It wouldn’t be everybody’s way of hearing these songs but it suited those who were in attendance at Cadogan Hall just fine and at the end Roger left the stage to a standing ovation.

Mr McGuinn opened the show by entering through the doors at the back of the stage already playing his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar to the tune of “My Back Pages” – a Bob Dylan composition. If he had wanted an alternate title for the tour then the title of that song would have served just fine because this is what we are treated to. His back pages indeed – we get to stroll through all the years of his career. Now at 72 years old, McGuinn is no spring chicken and that means that there are many eras and experiences to recall but he dips into just about all of them. There were stories about his years in the Byrds but also stories about the years before then. There were songs from his solo career and even one from his brief reuniting with some ex-Byrds in McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. There was talk of his time in the Rolling Thunder Revue and many tales of the mysterious Mr Dylan and the various songs of his that Roger has covered over those years. There was talk of his return to the charts with the “Back From Rio” album and the experience of working with Tom Petty. And finally there were songs from his “Folk Den” and Sea Shanty projects which have taken up the last number of years of his studio recording career.

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So there was a lot on offer here and all of it good. It must be noted just how dexterous Mr McGuinn is on guitar, despite his advancing years – which I don’t mean to labour on but it is one of the reasons that his ability is so notable. He played a seven-string custom built Roger McGuinn-model Martin as well as the electric 12-string but whatever his instrument of choice, his ability was just as notable. He told a story which implied that he had got Martin to build the acoustic to make life a little easier for him but I’m not going to be fooled, this guy is amazing.

Songs? Well from the Byrds era, there was “Mr Spaceman”, “Mr Tambourine Man”, “Eight Miles High”, a singalong rendition of the Biblical “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”. From their country endeavours there were “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. He told the story of their origin as a band, he threw in “5D (Fifth Dimension) – there was enough here to keep any Byrds fan, who is disappointed that they’re just never going to see that reunion happen, happy.

He told stories of “Easy Rider” and sang the “Ballad of…” that came from the film. There was a stunning version of “Chestnut Mare”. McGuinn’s solo career is often overlooked but if you do so you miss some gems, has “King of the Hill” (apparently based on the life of John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas”) and especially “Russian Hill” illustrated.

There were more Bob Dylan covers with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” being among the best. He performed “Don’t You Write Her Off” which came from the first (and best of) the McGuinn, Clark and Hillman albums.

Leadbelly’s “St James’ Infirmary Blues” was given a tremendous reading and the recent album of Shanties (“CCD”) was represented by “Randy Dandy Oh”.

So as the evening was rounded of with his self-composed benediction “May the Road Rise to Meet You”, it just remained to note the wonderful acoustics in the hall and the sterling job done by the guy on the sound desk. No fancy lights, no powerful band, no gimmicks. Just a solid night of stories and songs – just the way the artist intended it to be.

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