A cracking tribute at The Egg.
Being unable to decide whether to choose a ‘Night to Remember’ from far back into last century or go for a more recent event the winner combines a bit of both. The night is barely three years ago but the setlist is mainly over fifty years old. In 2018 Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman took the album they made in 1968 as The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, considered the beginning of country rock, on a US tour to mark its 50th anniversary. I caught this show at The Egg Performing Arts Center in Albany, NY, an extraordinary looking building so-called because of its shape perched on a pod in a plaza of office blocks serving the state capital.
For such an iconic album It is worth remembering that ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ was not an immediate success. Back in early 1968 The Byrds faced a dilemma. Having dismissed David Crosby and Michael Clarke, McGuinn was the leader of a band with only one other member, Hillman. But shortage of numbers hadn’t diminished his ambitious plan to release an album that swept across American popular music from Appalachia and bluegrass, through country, folk, jazz, R&B to rock. Enter Gram Parsons who steered the project towards “Cosmic American Music”, his interpretation of roots skewed by his own love of country. Despite having been mostly recorded in Nashville with an impressive line-up including Clarence White, John Hartford, Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness among others, the album climbed no higher than 77 on Billboard and got nowhere in the UK. ‘Sweetheart’s’ live reception fared worse as The Byrds were booed by the Ryman and Opry establishment. Nevertheless, over the years ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ gave The Byrds a new lease of life, paving the way for the Flying Burrito Brothers and creating the country-rock genre.
But even a classic like ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ could come across 50 years later as little more than a nostalgia trip. Any such misgivings were completely put to rest when these two Byrds founders teamed up with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
The two-set show was more than just a tribute to ‘Sweetheart’, it was a testimonial to the entire Byrds sound. McGuinn and Hillman gave a sprightly, engaging performance, and including Marty Stuart was a stroke of genius. Not only did he and his band add the necessary support but they added a more contemporary freshness to the 50-year-old album. Performing their own material and an encore devoted to Tom Petty just underlined the reach of The Byrds’ influence.
McGuinn and Hillman gave all due recognition. And this is what made the show so memorable. They didn’t only play ‘Sweetheart’ they put it into context with the first set of songs that predated its release. In so doing McGuinn and Hillman explained their various influences and collaborations punctuated with some priceless anecdotes, not dissimilar to McGuinn’s solo acoustic shows a few years previously.
Applause as they took the stage was warm and welcoming, not hero worship but more like greeting old friends. And old friends these were; they had been part of our lives for over half a century! McGuinn wore his trademark fedora, Hillman had an almost professorial look, leaving Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to provide the rhinestones and big hats.
There could be only one opening song, ‘My Back Pages‘. “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now” set the evening up perfectly. To show Stuart was not there as support but was part of the band, he took the lead vocal on ‘Satisfied Mind’. Hearing ‘Mr Spaceman’ was a reminder of ‘Sweetheart’s’ change of direction. McGuinn’s jangling Rickenbacker sent this audience into orbit. He and Hillman took turns in introducing the songs. Hillman took us back to some characters of his childhood, the idea behind ‘Old John Robertson.’ Here Stuart reminded us of his impeccable bluegrass upbringing with his mandolin accompaniment.
McGuinn and Hillman also acknowledged the gathering influences on The Byrds; for example The Beatles for ‘Time Between’. They also talked about those they had met whose songs they covered, including Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow.’ Its lyrics about the hippie lifestyle were in sharp contrast to the country world. They had the audience in stitches when recounting their interview with the Nashville DJ who made very clear they would not feature on his country music show. Their response was ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man’ who “… sure does think different from the records he plays.” The first set closed with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ preceded by the equally amusing account of how they had to cut down Dylan’s nearly five-minute version to 2 minutes 30 seconds if they were to get radio airtime.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives opened the second set on their own. With ‘Country Boy Rock & Roll’ and ‘Time Don’t Wait’ they proved their high reputation as a live act. Throughout the show they swapped instruments to the point it was hard to work out who played what.
Then it was ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ from beginning to end. McGuinn and Hillman of course saluted Gram Parsons, paraphrasing what he had said to Rolling Stone at the time: “Gram’s bag is country and we’re going to let him do his thing.” In terms of writing these were ‘Hickory Wind’ and ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ but the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Christian Life’ was very much his idea too. They also highlighted their respect for the great country artists: Merle Haggard for ‘Life in Prison’, Luke McDaniel’s ‘You’re Still On My Mind’. Hillman went back to his roots playing mandolin on ‘I am a Pilgrim’. The Superlatives were just that; Chris Scruggs took to upright bass on ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, one of the album’s best-arranged songs, then played sublime pedal steel on the soulful ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ With Kenny Vaughan’s guitar and Harry Stinson on drums they injected a tightness that gave the whole performance a solid core.
Dylan remerged with the album’s more contemporary links, this time with the two tracks from ‘The Basement Tapes’ made with The Band: ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ and the opener and refrain ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’. The audience was very much part of this great performance but Hillman made sure it ended that way by encouraging all to join in at the end. He need hardly have asked. The Egg almost cracked.
Tom Petty was a friend, collaborator, and one whose unmistakable trademark sound drew on The Byrds. So it was both fitting and touching that the encore should include two of his songs: ‘Wildflowers’ and ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ McGuinn quipped that the third encore is often attributed to Petty, ‘So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star’.
Just as the opening song was almost predestined, there could only be one final encore; Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn!, Turn!,Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)’. The Byrds may be long gone, but those on stage were going strong and that song is for evermore.
This was the ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’s’ 50-year anniversary tour. But it was far more than a tribute to that one record. The show was a reminder of everything The Byrds have done, their roots and influences. It also presented another band at the top of their game: Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Finally they also remembered another great musician, Tom Petty. That was a lot for one show, but they did it in style and it was a privilege to have been with them in that lovely auditorium.