Sing Me Back Home

When this previously unreleased live album was recorded, the Byrds were three-quarters configured in their most stable, long-lived lineup — and also about three-quarters of the way to realizing their full onstage potential. Live at the Fillmore found them working under leader Roger McGuinn's aegis to fuse rock with hard-core country & western — usually with great sincerity, and occasionally with thinly veiled hippie irony (the McGuinn–Gram Parsons co-authored "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" [RealAudio excerpt]). The other bandmembers at this juncture were drummer Gene Parsons, bassist John York and guitarist Clarence White — the last named a country-bluegrass phenom who was arguably the best musician ever to fly with the Byrds during their seemingly endless personnel shifts. It was this quartet that recorded Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, which was released February 3, 1969, just before the February 7–8 stand at San Francisco's Fillmore West documented herein.

While this set falls short of the heights scaled on the live half of 1970's double album, (Untitled) — by then, Skip Battin had replaced York, thus cementing a lineup as definitive in its own way as the original McGuinn-Gene Clark-David Crosby-Chris Hillman-Mike Clarke Byrd roster of 1965 — the album is nonetheless a tasty sampler of this legendary group in its decade-ending transition. In particular, the contrast between McGuinn's still-folkie/futuristic 12-string guitar and White's speedy, interwoven country-bluegrass licks made for an interesting cross-cultural pollination. The two styles don't really jell here so much as they pose amicable challenges — conversing, testing, daring and even fumbling now and again. For instance, White's busy, stock fills sound out of place on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Mr. Tambourine Man," conjoined as part of a medley that concludes with a five-minute jam on "Eight Miles High" that's but a snippet compared to where it was heading. To hear where it landed, listen to the magnificent extended 1970 version that took up an entire side of (Untitled).

Despite its few flaws, however, Live at the Fillmore is a satisfying set. There's been no evident retouching, and McGuinn's vocals occasionally ride a little low in the mix, but this was one tight ensemble, approaching the nimble agility of a bluegrass band while deploying basic rock-group instrumentation. In terms of repertoire, the Byrds tended toward the country side, drawing from Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (five tracks) and its predecessor, the Parsons-heavy Sweetheart of the Rodeo (three tracks, including Johnny Cash's "You're Still on My Mind" and Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd"). There are also a couple of wonderful honky-tonk covers (Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Close Up the Honky Tonks," which was also in ex-Byrds' Parsons and Hillman's Flying Burrito Brothers' setlist at this time), and even a few early Byrds surprises such as "Time Between" and "He Was a Friend of Mine." In sum, Live at the Fillmore is a welcome addition to the Byrds' ever-remarkable catalog.


VMAs 2017