Roger McGuinn - guitar, vocals; Clarence White - guitar, mandolin, vocals; Skip Battin - bass, vocals; Gene Parsons - drums, harmonica, vocals; Guest:; Kathi McDonald - vocals (on track 5)
Preparing for the release of a new album and with Roger McGuinn the subject of Rolling Stone magazine's monthly interview, August of 1970 would prove a pivotal time for The Byrds. When many of the band's contemporaries had split up or were nearing the end of their creativity, the double album Untitled would rejuvenate the band's following. Released a month after the Fillmore West set presented here, the album featured both live and studio recordings, with all four members contributing material. An extensive touring schedule during this time also helped develop a new legion of fans and The Byrds were finally gaining a deserved reputation as a compelling live band. It is no wonder that this occurred, as Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and Skip Battin would indeed become the most enduring lineup of The Byrds, performing and recording together from September of 1969 well into 1972. Much credit goes to McGuinn for maintaining a vision for the group and keeping this lineup together, but the secret weapon was guitarist Clarence White. It was White's innovative string bending techniques, combined with McGuinn's signature sound, that extended the band's explorations of country music within a heavier rock framework. White was an utterly unique talent, with blazing guitar chops, a razor sharp sound and astounding musical sensibilities. He was equally potent in both acoustic and electric settings and possessed the all-too-rare ability to think in terms of a soulful unified sound. This was a key ingredient to the cohesiveness and strength of The Byrds live performances during this era. They would experience wildly enthusiastic audiences nearly everywhere they played, especially in Europe where their popularity had never really waned. The Byrds were one of very few bands capable of forging both a spiritual and musical unity between the two decades and both critics and fans agreed that this lineup was more accomplished in concert than any previous configuration of The Byrds.
Presented here is the final night of a four night engagement at Fillmore West, when The Byrds headlined a triple bill that also featured Big Brother & The Holding Company and Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. This would turn out to be The Byrds' final west coast performance for Bill Graham, who would close both Fillmores the following year. With a more discerning audience and often attended by rock music journalists (a primary source of exposure for musicians in the pre-Internet age), playing the Fillmore was a high-profile gig and The Byrds deliver nothing less than their A-game here. This run is also notable for being the first time a true stereo mix was heard at Fillmore West. The band's engineer, Dinky Dawson, convinced Bill Graham to allow him to set up his own stereo system in front of the house system. This required lugging 40 road cases up flights of stairs, but it was well worth it. Dawson's house mix not only dazzled the audience, but Bill Graham himself and many San Francisco musicians who turned up over the course of this run, including members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. This configuration of The Byrds played both acoustic and electric music and front man, Roger McGuinn, is particularly engaged throughout this performance, both vocally and as a guitarist and this is one of the better examples of the musical chemistry between these four musicians.
The night begins with the standard opener of this era, "Lover Of The Bayou," the McGuinn/Jacques Levy collaboration that would kick off the live half of the Untitled album. Like much of McGuinn's original material from this era, the song was written for an aborted stage show project called Gene Tryp, which was based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (The stage show's name was simply an anagram of Ibsen's title). Set during the Civil War, "Lover Of The Bayou" is a character study of a Louisiana voodoo man, with McGuinn serving as its witch doctor narrator. Right from the start, McGuinn is particularly engaged, spitting out his lead vocal in a particularly aggressive manner. Threatening and tense, this opening number finds the band in strong form, particularly Clarence White, whose unique touch and expert grasp of distortion are largely responsible for evoking the song's sinister tone. The Byrds continue with one of Dylan's unreleased Basement Tapes compositions, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." Unlike the acoustic based Sweethearts Of The Rodeo recording from two years prior, here the song features electric instrumentation. Skip Battin next fronts the group and shares his ruminations on the Vietnam War with "Well Come Back Home," the compelling album closer of the Untitled LP.
One of the highlights of this performance surfaces next as the band tackle the medley that first appeared on the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album. It begins with their arrangement of Dylan's "My Back Pages." Here the song is played in truncated form, before skillfully segueing into a brief jam that transitions into a sizzling cover of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do." For the latter half of this medley, Clarence White gets ample opportunity to display his blues chops, but what makes this version so unique is the presence of Kathi McDonald, who joins the band on stage as a guest vocalist. McDonald, who was then a member of Big Brother & The Holding Company, has undeniably powerful vocal chops and she belts it out here, making this version of "Baby What You Want Me To Do" one of the peak moments of this set. Prior to performing a few acoustic numbers, McGuinn leads the group through a sparse arrangement of "He Was A Friend Of Mine," originally written in response to the JFK assassination.
The acoustic portion of the performance comes next beginning with a romp through Leadbelly's cocaine anthem "Take A Whiff On Me," which would also feature on the forthcoming album. Sure to dazzle all acoustic guitarists, Clarence White's blazing finger work is also showcased with the traditional fiddle tune "Soldiers Joy" (AKA Black Mountain Rag).
Returning to electric instrumentation, the intensity level kicks right back up with a fiery rendition of "This Wheel's On Fire." After a hot prelude jam and all four musicians contributing vocals to the choruses, things really take off when McGuinn and White launch into a sizzling guitar jam midway through. With McGuinn particularly engaged, this ranks as one of the best versions of this song in the Concert Vault.
A pair of songs from the soundtrack to the iconic Easy Rider movie are presented next back-to-back. With Gene Parsons contributing harmonica, they begin with a haunting rendition of Dylan's "Its Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," Upon the songs conclusion, McGuinn recreates the sound of a motorcycle crash before continuing with a lovely "Ballad Of Easy Rider." This serves as a quieter reflective moment, but within the first few seconds of "Jesus Is Just Alright," which follows, the intensity level cranks right back up. They take this song at a good clip, with Battin and Parsons propelling the action behind McGuinn and White. Following this, another "Gene Tryp" number appears in the form of McGuinn's "All The Things," a new ecologically minded composition featured on the Untitled album. Of particular note is Clarence White's highly sensitive guitar playing here, which decorates and compliments McGuinn's vocal on each and every verse.
The set continues with a performance of the high energy instrumental, "Nashville West." White's electric fingerpicking is dazzling here and the rhythm section provides outstanding propulsion. Those familiar with the live version on Untitled may notice this has expanded a bit. Here this instrumental features a new vocal coda with the band utilizing the ecstatic Buddhist chant found on the end of the studio recording of "Well Come Back Home" to nice effect.
Following a quick tune-up, The Byrds head toward the close with their hits medley and this too stands out from other versions from this era. Unlike many of the performances by this configuration of The Byrds, both "Turn Turn Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," which segue one to the other, are not taken at a frantic tempo. Taken at a more moderate tempo, both of these classic Byrds hits shine, with the former being a particularly fine example of McGuinn and White's interlocking and complimentary guitar playing. On the extended "Eight Miles High" jam that follows, the entire group is on fire. Again, what makes this performance stand out is just how engaged McGuinn is here. Unlike most versions of "Eight Miles High" from this era, White, despite playing as great as always, is not the dominating guitar factor here. McGuinn is equally engaged and wastes little time diving in deep, in fact taking the first extended solo, while White supports him with circular riffing. Often content to support White as a rhythm guitarist, the roles are at first reversed here, which makes this performance a very intriguing listen. When White does take over for the second extended solo, the group is in inspired form, which provokes him to soar. White's biting electric tone has rarely sounded better and his use of sustain is extraordinary here. For the next several minutes, they venture deep into psychedelic territory. Then McGuinn and White drop out, allowing the rhythm section to solo as well. Battin and Parson's deliver a tight rhythmic exploration of their own before Battin leads the way back into the jam. When White and McGuinn join back in, the group begins maneuvering into "Eight Miles High" proper. McGuinn's Coltrane-influenced opening riffs signal the transition and they finally segue into the first verse of this legendary song. However, the group is cooking so hard that they blaze right off again, never returning to the lyric. After another minute or two of intense interplay which features White providing ferocious rhythmic elements in addition to interlocking leads with McGuinn, this "Eight Miles High" jam comes to a crashing close, followed by the band's blues based signature outro, "Hold It," to conclude the set. This ends with a well-deserved ovation, with the San Francisco audience unison stomping and clapping for more.
For the encore, the group kicks into one of their greatest hits, "So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star," followed by a delightful reading of the country flavored "Mr. Spaceman." The audience still demands more and following a brief closing monologue/intro from McGuinn, The Byrds forgo their instruments altogether to sing an a cappella "Amazing Grace," bringing The Byrds last ever performance at Fillmore West to an end. (Bershaw)