Roger McGuinn was perhaps the leading architect of the 1960s folk-rock sound. When the purists of Greenwich Village disdained his attempts in the mid-’60s to blend folk songs with pop rhythms, he headed to Los Angeles to found the the Byrds. There, his adaptations of songs by Bob Dylan and others, graced by his signature electric 12-string guitar intros, took the band to huge national success. Last Friday, he came to the Egg and strung his hits along the strand of his remarkably lucky life story in a solo performance marked by fine musicianship and the warmth of his gracious personality.
McGuinn, 69, opened by striding out from behind the rear curtain playing his 12-string Rickenbacker and singing Dylan’s’ “My Back Pages.” Wearing a rakishly tilted black fedora, green trousers, a black shirt and black leather vest, he took a seat on a piano bench before a backdrop of tall potted plants. After a thankfully brief discourse on early music history, he continued with “My Love Don’t Care About Time,” into which he wove a snatch of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Although his tremulous tenor has lost some power, he was still solidly on key. His guitar playing has lost nothing.
Transistor radios and the Beatles got McGuinn playing guitar at 14, and by the time he graduated from high school he was landing gigs with the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and even pop idol Bobby Darin. To represent this period, he delivered the sea chantey “Randy Dandy-O,” which describes the perilous voyage around Cape Horn.
As he retraced his footsteps, he underscored cardinal events such as scoring a job as a songwriter in the Brill Building or performing for the State Department in South America with songs. But all too often in his first set he’d only play a verse or two. That got annoying—no musician’s biography trumps the compositions that made him great.
At the milestone of the Byrds, he returned to complete songs and the show hit its peak. Seeing him play his original guitar parts to “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with their tricky technique of combining the flatpick and right-hand fingers, was a genuine thrill for me, who heard those tunes a thousand times on the radio as a kid. His best instrumental work of the night was his 7-string acoustic guitar version of “Eight Miles High,” in which he borrowed from Isaac Albeniz’s “Leyenda” for the intro, and finished with an intense raga-like coda.
Paying tribute to his Irish roots, he encored with his musical setting of the famous blessing that begins, “May the road rise up to meet you.” The road has treated McGuinn better than most, and we’re the richer for it.