Roger McGuinn Solo Concert Review: Still Soaring at 79

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Roger McGuinn live in San Diego County, April 2022 (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

Roger McGuinn’s April 22, 2022, performance at the Poway Performing Arts Center, an intimate theater in San Diego County, was like listening to good music and reading a good book, all at once.

The legendary co-founder of the Byrds—and architect of the group’s jingle-jangle electric folk sound—was accompanied on stage by only a handful of guitars, including his signature electric 12-string Rickenbacker, and a banjo. And the repertoire of his two-hour show was equal parts songs and stories.

That’s been McGuinn’s concert formula for years. And while there have been occasional detours into full-band accompaniment—such as 2018’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” anniversary tour with fellow Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman, backed by Marty Stuart and (the appropriately named) the Fabulous Superlatives—his solo shows are so mesmerizing, so enchanting, so fulfilling, that I’ve seen him five times over the last four years, most recently driving 130 miles to catch his July 2021 performance in northern Los Angeles County. The stories are so important to him that he won’t play bars, nightclubs or dinner theaters, where there’s too much commotion.

Thankfully, given the high price of gasoline, this show was a lot closer to home, and once again fans witnessed McGuinn’s transformation from a generally shy, reserved man into one of the most engaging, charming and talkative performers around as he led them on a musical journey through his life.

As the lights dimmed, he walked on stage strumming and singing “My Back Pages,” one of more than a dozen Dylan songs the Byrds reimagined as their own, changing the time signature to 4/4, employing what McGuinn calls “a Beatles beat,” and cutting the length to less than three minutes “for AM radio.” He told the audience it had become “kind of a theme song” for him, and recalled playing it onstage at Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in October 1992 with an all-star band that included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Dylan himself. “They used my arrangement,” he said proudly. “And I’m looking down on the teleprompter—some of the guys didn’t know the words by heart like I did—and it was programmed with the official Bob Dylan songbook, and the words were scrolling up and I go, ‘Man, that’s not the way I learned it off the record. I’ve been singing it wrong for all these years.’”

Watch Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison perform “My Back Pages” in 1992

From there, he went back in time to his early teen years growing up in Chicago, the son of James McGuinn, author of the best-selling book Parents Can’t Win, and mother Dorothy. He recounted receiving a transistor radio at the age of 13 and then sang and strummed the opening verse and chorus of “Heartbreak Hotel.” “You didn’t think I was going to do a full-on Elvis Presley interpretation,” he told the audience, “which really caught my attention. Before that, I had never wanted to play music. I had heard songs like ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’ and ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie’ and for some reason songs like that didn’t make me want to get up and play music.”

Related: When McGuinn paid tribute to Tom Petty

But not long after, McGuinn related, he was given a guitar for his 14th birthday and taught himself to play by listening to rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly records by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent—here, he played a few riffs of “Be Bop a Lula”—and started bringing his guitar to entertain his classmates at the private Latin School of Chicago, whose other notable alumni include Nancy Reagan and Adlai Stevenson III. “I found out something wonderful,” he said. “The girls liked me better.”

McGuinn later enrolled in Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, where he developed a love for folk music after seeing a performance by Bob Gibson. “Burl Ives didn’t sound like that,” McGuinn deadpanned. He also was introduced to such other early folkies as Odetta and Pete Seeger and learned to play the banjo and the 12-string guitar, a favorite of Lead Belly.

Through stories and songs, McGuinn took the audience through the early years of his career, playing coffeehouses and backing the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin, who later brought him to the famous Brill Building in New York City as a staff songwriter.

Bob Dylan sits in with the Byrds in 1965

From there, McGuinn jumped around a bit, touching down on the formation of the Byrds; his subsequent solo career and tours with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue (1975-76) and, a decade later, with Dylan and Tom Petty; and his love for sea chanties and traditional folk music.

He talked about, and sang, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the latter a reworking of a Pete Seeger song based on the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. McGuinn recalled hearing Seeger later say, “I sang that song, never really expecting it to be well known, and then this guy I never met picked it up and made a hit record out of it.” McGuinn beamed and pointed to himself as the audience erupted in laughter.

He spoke of writing the “cliff” part of “Chestnut Mare” years before the Byrds recorded it for their 1970 Untitled album. While playing with the Chad Mitchell Trio, McGuinn was booked on a U.S. government-sponsored, 90-day town hall tour through Latin America. “It was kind of exciting,” McGuinn recalled. “You’d hear machine-gun fire, and then they’d take you over a couple of blocks to get you out of harm’s way and you’d look up and see ‘Yankee Go Home!’ and the CIA guy would say, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that, that’s been there a long time,’ as the blue paint is still dripping down the wall. To get away from it all, I took my guitar to a cliff overlooking the ocean and I came up with this little riff…I didn’t know what to do with it at the time because I wasn’t a songwriter so I filed it away in the back of my head, and years later I was writing a song with Jacques Levy about a horse going off a cliff and I went, ‘Cliff—I got some cliff music.’ So I put that little bit into this next song…”

Before playing Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” McGuinn talked about hearing the song for the first time: “I was getting ready to do an album for Columbia Records and I had most of the songs ready to go, but I needed a couple of outside songs to fill in, and my manager was around the corner putting on records and tapes. He put on this song that sounded so familiar, the vocal part of it, that I said, ‘Wow, when did I record that?’ He said, ‘It isn’t you.’ I said, ‘I know. Who is it?’ He said, ‘It’s this new guy, Tom Petty,’ and I said I wanted to meet him.” A meeting was arranged, McGuinn and Petty became friends, and a short time later Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for McGuinn at the Bottom Line in New York City.

Listen to McGuinn perform Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in 1977

A decade later, McGuinn’s worldwide tour with Dylan and Petty came about by chance. McGuinn and his wife, Camilla, decided to catch Petty’s show in Tampa. While waiting for the music to start, fans in the stands were throwing Frisbees, and one hit Camilla in the eye. “It wasn’t serious,” McGuinn recalled, “but the ushers saw it and thought we ought to go backstage and have somebody take a look at it. So as we were going backstage, Tom and the Heartbreakers were coming out to play, and when he saw me n the hall he said, ‘Roger McGuinn! You gotta come up and do a couple of songs with me.’ Well, this is Tampa, in the summer. I was wearing white shorts and a red Hawaiian shirt. I looked more like I was going to a Jimmy Buffett concert. But I got up and did a couple of songs and the next day Tom called up invited us out to the beach hotel where he and his band were staying. His daughters were quite young at the time, and we were flying kites out on the beach, and he casually mentioned, ‘In a couple of weeks I’m going to tour Europe with Bob Dylan. I’ll ask Bob if you can come along.’”

l. to r.: Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour (Photo from McGuinn’s Facebook page)

Other highlights of the show included “Lover of the Bayou,” a McGuinn song he recorded with the Byrds as well as on his third solo album (and which Petty covered with his first band, Mudcrutch); “Eight Miles High,” the big Byrds hit whose climb up the charts was stymied by DJs who feared the “high” in the song was a reference to drugs, not flight; “King of the Hill,” a song about “Papa” John Phillips’ descent into drugs written and recorded by McGuinn with Petty for McGuinn’s 1991 album Back From Rio; and two songs off his acclaimed 1976 solo album, Cardiff Rose, the sea chanty “Jolly Roger” and “Dreamland,” a song Joni Mitchell gave him while on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour bus a year earlier after he asked her “if she had any spare songs.”

McGuinn ended his set with an encore of “Chimes of Freedom,” another Dylan song electrified by the Byrds (and the final track recorded for their debut album). Then came a song he wrote with Camilla, “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” and the sentiments of what is essentially a love song were undoubtedly shared by the audience for McGuinn, who turns 80 on July 13:

“May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your land
May the rain fall soft upon your face until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of His hand ….”

Watch McGuinn perform “Turn! Turn! Turn!” at an earlier solo concert

Thomas K. Arnold

1 Comment so far

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  1. Ell Dee
    #1 Ell Dee 27 April, 2022, 19:58

    Thanks for such a great review, hope to catch one of Roger McGuinn’s concerts this summer!

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