By George Lenker | Special to The Republican
on June 07, 2014 at 12:20 AM, updated June 07, 2014 at 1:10 AM
The Byrds, Roger McGuinn’s seminal 1960s band, had a huge sound with chiming 12-string guitars and soaring complex harmonies.
So you might think that McGuinn trying to pull off some of those songs in a solo setting might not work. But it does.
While they originally were dressed up with pretty vocals and shimmering guitars that sometimes verged on the psychedelic, the songs themselves are sturdy enough to sit alone in a setting with just a voice and guitar. McGuinn proved this numerous times Friday night during his show at the Academy of Music in Northampton.
Of course McGuinn wasn’t there just to do a Byrds retrospective. He has a long career with many branches after The Byrds flew the coop. Most recently he’s become a folk music archivist. This makes perfect sense because that’s where his roots were in the early 1960s.
But McGuinn also is smart enough to know that many people in his audience aren’t there to hear two hours of songs like “Old Plank Road” and “Roddy McCorley” (as great as they are); they want to hear some hits.
McGuinn didn’t disappoint on either count. He wisely kicked off with the Bob Dylan tune, “It’s Alright Ma,” which he covered for the “Easy Rider” soundtrack, followed by “Ballad of Easy Rider” from the same film.
Even at age 71, McGuinn’s voice is a cool and smooth–albeit fragile–tenor that can carry a theater such as the Academy of Music. In some ways, his voice shined even more without the pretty clutter of harmonies The Byrds employed. He also showcased his still formidable guitar picking skills on songs such as “Pretty Boy Floyd” from the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
Of course McGuinn delved into some old-time traditional folk, etching out a great banjo version of “Pretty Saro” and a rousing take on “Rock Island Line.”
McGuinn also performed some great post-Byrds material such as the Joni Mitchell penned “Dreamland” off his magnificent “Cardiff Rose” album of 1975.
After a brief intermission, McGuinn returned with “Lover of the Bayou” and then weaved a tale using the character from that song to introduce others, including “Chestnut Mare” and “I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician.”
The singer-songwriter brought things home in grand fashion, ending the night with Byrds’ hits “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High.”
A three-song encore featured “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and “May the Road Rise to Meet You.”