The Byrds' Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman Take Fans Down Memory Lane With 'Sweetheart' Tribute Concert in L.A.

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Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, co founders of The Byrds, perform onstage during the 50th anniversary tribute to the Byrds album 'Sweetheart fo the Rodeo' at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on July 24, 2018 in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday night at downtown L.A.’s vintage, cathedral-like Ace Hotel Theatre, folk-rock and country-rock re-united under the stewardship of Byrds partners Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. 

The night’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary album tribute offered such a steady stream of—mostly quite intriguing—curatorial observations that some attendees may have wondered if they had happened upon a “So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star” TED talk that, happily, kept threatening to break out as a concert extravaganza of guitar-drunk Americana. 

Fluently played and sung, boasting bold multi-part harmonizing that may have been the most passionately-delivered ingredient of the show, the affair unfolded with warmth, geniality and a good sampling of (for those around during the first incarnation) intoxicating memories.

The subject 1968 album is such a landmark—inflected with gentle irony that did not undercut its makers’ obvious love for pure country in the Grand Ole Opry style—that it probably should have had a tribute every ten years since its release. In great part the product of a chance meeting between the Byrds’ Chris Hillman and southern-boy-by-way-of-Harvard legend Gram Parsons— “a preppie…and a folkie” as Roger McGuinn would later describe him—it was a sincere effort that initially was shunted to the side, even by many loyal Byrds fans. This correspondent knows because I was one such. Even though I had the first three Byrds albums when I had only about 20 LP’s (Otis Redding’s Complete and Unbelievable fraying in the stack along with mostly British Invasion fare), I’d figured Sweetheart must be mere novelty. When a friend played “The Christian Life” one day, even as we snickered at the lyrics -- “I won’t lose a friend by heeding God’s call/For what is a friend who’d want you to fall?” -- we caught on.

Underneath, as we heard in McGuinn’s vocal, there rose a palpable love for the original’s sincerity. It found its own loping beat, by contrast to the stately Louvin brothers plaint, which lifted off their Satan Is Real LP thanks to their adventurous harmonies and virtuoso mandolin playing by brother Ira (who in a sad reversal became a wastrel). 

In fact, the entire Sweetheart album is shot through with filaments of fundamentalist religion, notably the trad “I Am A Pilgrim”. (Which is followed on Sweetheart by William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a song which Bell sang for a rapt President Obama at a White House Memphis soul celebration, and which McGuinn fascinatingly pointed out was about missing not a lover, but Bell’s Tennessee home).

But If there’s just one soul ballad on the ur-country rock album, there is plenty of soulfulness. Witness the great and mournful crooner George Jones’ “You’re Still on My Mind,” Parsons’ landmark “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now” (“Nobody knows what kind of trouble there is…”) and even Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered,” with its buried messages of what Dylan savant Robert Shelton called “a search for salvation”). Those songs, and even the just-folks album title, seem to mingle into a philosophical journey that quietly serves as a critique of the society into which the album was released. Hillman has spoken of the nation’s mood in 1968 when the album hit stores, within months of the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations (and followed by the Altamont disaster of the next year): “What Sweetheart brought to the picture,” Hillman told Forbes recently, “was a sense of calm.” 

Hillman has long disparaged his own singing on the album, saying he was new to that task, yet in the first half of the two-set show, the song choices almost seemed to be designed to show the country roots he and McGuinn can claim outside of and prior to Parson’s influence. Though his rendition of the great Merle Haggard song, “Sing Me Back Home”, was sung with great sincerity, it couldn’t supplant partner McGuinn’s take at Fillmore West in 1969 as found on the Byrds’ There Is A Season compilation. And yet soon enough Hillman did the departed Parsons great justice with a committed reading of “One Hundred Years from Now.” 

McGuinn remains the hard-to summarize entity he has always been. He can toggle from being the most earnest of er, rock 'n' roll stars to the most playful, all in a moment. (In an interview I had with Parsons six months before he died, he fondly described​ McGuinn showing up to interviews with his own, pre-taped queries to rote questions, which he would play directly into interviewer’s tape recorders). But from the moment he took the stage to galvanize the crowd with Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” McGuinn owned all the territory he wanted. (And yet he enthusiastically ceded the spotlight to Hillman and to the multi-talented added asset Marty Stuart when they had their ample opportunities to shine). Stuart was a beacon of good will and impressive chops on six-string and mandolin, and his bandmates the Fabulous Superlatives, notably pedal steel ace Chris Scruggs, supplied sensitive and at times romping back-up. (A cover of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream” rocked especially hard, assuaging  one’s unfulfilled wish to hear the gospel-rocking “Jesus Is Just Allright.”)  

Though the status of sometime Byrd David Crosby has not been publicly addressed recently, the evening’s mood was of fond recall of various stages of Byrds business. Time has given Hillman the look of your amiable uncle with lots of stories, while McGuinn—this evening wearing a familiar jauntily angled fedora—from the start has been unique in several regards. He’s famously known for his ringing Rickenbacker 12-string, deployed here for a powerful quintet of set-closing numbers—but still more for his vocals. He intro’d Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which closed the first half of the set, as the first song the Byrds ever did—"and it went to Number One in 13 countries.”  He sang it out with his trademark plaintive (at times almost wheedling) urgency, his workmanlike vibrato somehow always conveying his deep attachment to another’s lyrics. Fittingly then, (though Wednesday’s crowd would not have the benefit of Petty confrere Mike Campbell adding guitar as he did Tuesday), the set closed, after three Petty covers, with “Turn! Turn! Turn!”.

Nothing could be folkier than that venerable Pete Seeger tune, though McGuinn has remarked that the early Byrds were so steeped in folk-rock pacing that the classic was almost transfigured into a samba, and the chiming, stop-and-start version was what the by now happily satiated audience heard. It served to pick up the quietly insistent spiritual thread that  much of the foregoing music had provided, and by the time McGuinn sang out the clarion closing lines Seeger added to a Biblical verse—“A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”—all present had been gifted with that sense of calm—in this case laced with real exuberance—that the vibrantly skilled onstage crew provided.