As a recent Answer Man letter to the Mercury suggested, Salina’s Stiefel Theater gets a lot of great pop music acts.
Most of them are past their commercial peaks—for example, Three Dog Night has sold out an upcoming show. But the best of what appears on the Stiefel’s stage can be very good indeed. Witness last Friday night’s performance by Roger McGuin.
The Byrds founder and front-man is now in his early seventies, but he is vital, good-natured, talented, and hard-working. His voice, the one Tom Petty has for years imitated, showed little sign of having contracted with age. His guitar playing is phenomenal—watching his right hand work on that signature Rickenbacker twelve-string was as good as a musical master class.
And he has the songs and the stories to make his performance extraordinarily entertaining. He came onto the stage playing “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” wearing the angled hat that has replaced his granny glasses as his visual trademark.
Then he played “My Back Pages,” encouraging the audience to sing along. Trading the Rick for a custom built seven-string Martin acoustic, McGuin then told about hearing Petty for the first time, and he played a convincing version of “American Girl.”
The stories during the first set, once his Byrds material had won the audience, seemed to be there mostly to allow him to play some odd things—including “St. James Infirmary” and a sea chanty—and to switch instruments—he also played five-string banjo and twelve-string acoustic guitar. Several of the stories had to do with McGuin’s old friend and sometime collaborator Bob Dylan.
Apparently the eccentric Dylan visited McGuin’s new California home once, saw a basketball goal, and asked if his host had a ball. McGuin bought one the next day and called Dylan’s house where his wife was certain Bob would be glad to hear of the acquisition. Dylan then showed up at McGuin’s again and the two great performers and songwriters spent the afternoon shooting hoops.
In another well-delivered anecdote, McGuin recalled that Peter Fonda showed “Easy Rider” to Dylan and asked for a song for it. Dylan immediately scribbled something on a napkin, handed it to the actor, and said, “Take this to McGuin. He’ll know what to do with it.” “It” was the lyrics to “The Ballad of Easy Rider.”
So the first set was fun. But the second set was fabulous. McGuin used it to recall his 1960s, beginning with a little bit of “Heartbreak Hotel” and telling how he came to be a guitarist, how employment with major folk acts (Chad Mitchell and the Limelighters) brought him to the attention of the multi-talented Bobby Darren and set him down in Las Angeles with a desire to play folk music with a “Beatle beat.”
He immediately met Gene Clark and they soon founded the Byrds with David Crosby and Chris Hillman (who was a mandolin player at the time, not a bassist). They got a one-shot recording try out with the stodgy Columbia label and produced “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which begins and ends with McGuin’s twelve-string playing a phrase guaranteed to give chills to old guys like me.
The likable McGuin also played “Bells of Rhymney,” “Eight Miles High,” “Chimes of Freedom,” the early seventies “Chestnut Mare” (a favorite of mine), and, during his encore, Clark’s great “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and the inevitable “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
It was, in short, one whale of a show, two hours and more of well-rehearsed but seemingly still fresh stories and songs, and all of it free of politics, religion, and back-biting of any sort. Somehow it didn’t seem like name-dropping when McGuin went through the list of his old associates—Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Darren, folksinger Bob Gibson, and Dylan. Maybe that’s because his own musical productivity has surpassed all of theirs except that of the mysterious Hibbing-ite. Dylan’s relationship with McGuin was sufficient that Bob sent the Byrds a tape of the brand-new “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” while they were in Nashville recording the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album.
That was a heck of a gift, and so was McGuin’s sterling show at the Stiefel, which is close enough for Manhattanites to enjoy the odd evening there. Not that there are many potential rivals for this latest entertainment, though McGuin did remind us of The Turtles when he played “You Showed Me,” a song he and Gene Clark wrote.