Roger McGuinn - guitars, vocals; Clarence White - guitars, mandolin, vocals; Skip Battin - bass, vocals; Gene Parsons - drums, banjo, vocals; Jim Seiter - congas, percussion
Despite being one of the most unstable American bands of the 1960s, The Byrds were also one of the most creative, innovative and influential. Right from the start, the group's music would have an impact, both on their own influences like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and on subsequent generations of country and alternative rock bands. The Byrds' striking vocal harmonies and the jangly timbre of Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar would fuel their early hits and become the building blocks of a sound that remains compelling to the present day.
Unlike most American rock bands of the era that first established their reputations on stage, The Byrds initially established their reputation in the studio. Over the course of their nearly decade long career and numerous personnel changes, this would gradually reverse itself. By 1970, when many of the band's contemporaries had split up or were nearing the end of their creativity, the double album Untitled, had redefined The Byrds' sound. Containing both live and studio recordings, all four members contributed material, which displayed a solid group effort. The group's extensive touring schedule during this era helped develop a new legion of fans and The Byrds would finally gain a deserved reputation as a compelling live band. It is no wonder that this occurred, as Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons,and Skip Battin had indeed become the most enduring lineup of The Byrds, performing and recording together from September of 1969 well into 1972. Much credit goes to Roger 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. Both critics and fans universally agreed that this early 1970s' lineup was far more accomplished in concert than any previous configuration of The Byrds.
Ironically, as the group became accomplished performing musicians, they would simultaneously experience decreasing satisfaction with their studio recordings, a reversed scenario of the group's most commercially successful years in the 1960s. Regardless, the live performances benefited from both old and new material and The Byrds certainly had a wealth of acoustic and electric material on which to develop their concert repertoire. Performing songs from throughout their wide ranging career, they were one of very few bands capable of forging both a spiritual and musical unity between the two decades. Their studio projects may have become less satisfying, but it mattered little to those attending their concerts as their most inspired and innovative moments now almost exclusively resulted on stage. They would experience wildly enthusiastic audiences nearly everywhere they played, especially in Europe where their popularity had never really waned.
A prime example is the recording presented here, taped by sound reinforcement pioneer Dinky Dawson in Manchester England during the European leg of The Byrds 1971 tour. This previously unheard recording captures the group just a month before the release of Byrdmaniax and two nights before the officially released Royal Albert Hall concert, playing before one of the most wildly enthusiastic audiences of their career.
The performance is structured in three parts, beginning and concluding with electric material, with an acoustic set sandwiched in between. The night kicks off with the standard opener of this era, McGuinn and Jacques Levy's "Lover Of The Bayou." 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 it's witch doctor narrator. Threatening and tense, this opener finds the entire 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.
They continue with one of Dylan's unreleased "Basement Tapes" compositions, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." Unlike the studio version featured on Sweethearts Of The Rodeo, here the number is played with full electric instrumentation. Next up is "Truck Stop Girl," the first of two songs with Clarence White on lead vocals. While not known for his vocal abilities, this is an engaging performance and proves White had a keen sense for recognizing songwriting talent, as this song was written by Lowell George and Bill Payne, soon to be recognized as the founders of Little Feat. A quick truncated rendition of Dylan's "My Back Pages" is up next, which transitions directly into a hot little jam that becomes Jimmy Reed's classic, "Baby What Do You Want Me To Do." This initial electric portion ends with Clarence White again taking lead vocal duties on "Jamaica Say You Will," written by a young aspiring songwriter named Jackson Browne. This song would close the forthcoming Byrdmaniax album and is another example of Clarence's keen sense for recognizing talented songwriters.
The group then becomes a bit more intimate with the Manchester audience with a three song acoustic set. Sure to dazzle all acoustic guitarists, Clarence White's blazing finger work is first showcased with the traditional fiddle tune "Soldiers Joy" (AKA "Black Mountain Rag"). This is followed by a rare acoustic arrangement of the Dylan song that first established The Byrds reputation, "Mr. Tambourine Man," which is delightful in this context. They wrap up the acoustic portion with Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," featuring crowd-pleasing banjo picking' from drummer Gene Parsons. followed by a romp through Leadbelly's cocaine anthem, "Take A Whiff On Me."
A fine rendition of "Chestnut Mare," which became a top 20 hit in Europe, is served up next. The most popular track from Untitled, here the song works perfectly as a bridge back into electric material and following this number, the Manchester audience roars its approval. When they resume playing fully electric, it is in a far more aggressive manner than earlier in the set. Within the first few seconds of "Jesus Is Just Alright," the intensity level has been cranked way up. They take this song at a hyperdrive tempo, with Battin and Parsons propelling McGuinn and White. The contrast to what proceeded it is extraordinary and after such a sizzling performance, they head straight for the stratosphere into "Eight Miles High." An improvisation begins from scratch and before you know it, the group is deep into a percolating raga-oriented jam.
For the next several minutes, they venture deeper into psychedelic territory that features a propulsive bottom end by Battin and Parsons, and McGuinn and White both blazing away on their guitars. Shortly before the 7 minute mark, McGuinn and White drop out, leaving the rhythm section, augmented with road manager Jim Seiter on congas, to develop a jam of their own. It takes a minute or two to fully coalesce, but by the 9 minute mark, Battin and Parsons are locked in tight and they really take off into a propulsive jam of their own. Approximately 5 minutes later, both guitarists join back in, with McGuinn reinforcing the rhythmic groove, while White provides sizzling leads. A full 16 minutes after it began, McGuinn starts maneuvering the jam into "Eight Miles High" proper. His Coltrane-influenced improvisations signal the transition and they finally launch into the first verse of this legendary song. However, the group is still cooking so hard that they blaze right off again, never returning to the lyric. After another minutes or two of intense interplay, this "Eight Miles High" jam comes to an explosive close, followed by the band's signature outro instrumental, "Hold It," to end the set.
The Manchester audience responds with a standing ovation and howls for more, enticing The Byrds back for an encore. A shout from the audience for "Rock And Roll Star" is clearly heard just seconds before the band surges into a forceful rendition of "So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star," much to the audiences' delight. They follow with another vintage hit in the form of "Mr. Spaceman." With it's countrified flavor, this is a perfect vehicle for Parson's style of drumming and with White's biting lead work added, this song never sounded better. At the song's conclusion, they again segue into the bluesy outro instrumental, "Hold It," as McGuinn thanks the Manchester audience and brings the set to a close.
The ecstatic audience refuses to let the band go, unison clapping, stomping and chanting for more. Clearly inspired by such a rousing response, The Byrds again return to the stage for a second encore. On this tour, final encores often included Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," usually followed by an a cappella "Amazing Grace," but on this night McGuinn had other ideas. Instead he and the band deliver not one, not two, but all three of their contributions to the iconic "Easy Rider" movie soundtrack 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." To close this remarkable night, The Byrds wrap it up perfectly with their arrangement of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune, "I Wasn't Born To Follow," ending this triple play of "Easy Rider" songs. For the third and final time, they blaze out on one last blast of "Hold It" as McGuinn encourages the Manchester audience to join them again two nights later at Royal Albert Hall. (Bershaw)